Blending Buddhism And Norse Mythology
Though you might be surprised to hear it, Buddhism and Norse Mythology share a common heritage.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that understanding this ancient link is absolutely vital to developing a worldview capable of powering humanity’s essential project of building a freer world.
When I was still wasting my life in academia, my research brought me to a startling conclusion: the misbegotten ideology of Liberalism is fundamentally self-destructive. To work, it relies on educating everyone in a certain way, training people to believe a particular set of myths about reality masquerading as “objective” science.
It promises a future with equality, justice, and peace for all, but what Liberalism really does is create a sanctified playground for people with power to justify the self-interested stuff they do. It enshrines social inequality by giving a privileged few the right to define truth for everyone else and expect everyone to accept their authority.
This is a delusional system because people can never be truly objective, we only simulate objectivity using the tools of science. Every person operates from a distinct personal frame of reference, and just as Einstein proved that physics must compensate for bias effects induced by the observer, so do the softer, more social sciences.
In the English-speaking world, science is typically presented as a rote set of facts maintained by an expert caste who dispenses wisdom to the ignorant masses. Assuming the average person to be too dumb and ill informed to understand most science, what experts present is usually a cartoon version that breaks under stress.
Ultimately, this sows the seeds that sprout into schism over matters of fact and truth. People come to feel truth has been weaponized and they start listening to experts who speak their language or hold the truths they prefer. The dream of Liberalism fades into oligarchy and dissolution of community, with the rich and powerful generally making out better than everyone else, allowing them to maintain a chokehold on power even after the system shifts to a new regime.
The intellectual heritage of Liberalism blinds its adherents to the simple observable fact that the world changes over time.
There is no End of History or Utopia in human affairs because of the fact of social frame of reference. One person’s paradise is some other’s prison because Humans are biologically tribal, tending to self-organize into groups based on shared truths that shift over time or else the group divides.
A big part of why I abandoned my doctoral studies is that I came to the conclusion that, at least in American academia, belief in Liberalism is required for success. Alternative worldviews are effectively banished from mainstream because Liberalism’s high priests have lifetime tenure and the ability to claim the role of “expert” in the media.
A critical question humanity has to work out in the coming years is how to develop a viable alternative to the false promise of Liberalism. The ideology is too bound up with its “Western” identity to cope with the complexities of global society.
Systems theory and systems thinking offer a far better path forward, offering methods of investigation that can power a new kind of decentralized global scientific revolution. But these are modern concepts, even if rooted in ancient wisdom, and it is dangerous to ignore the insights our ancestors passed down.
Uniting new and old is essential, because modern methods have finally made it possible to understand something of the world our forebears lived in. Blending of old and new is itself an ancient practice, and in truth much of the thinking that eventually shaped the modern world stemmed from a series of ancient migrations that utterly reshaped the cultural landscape of Eurasia in what many scholars term an Axial age.
From around 6,000 to 3,000 years ago successive waves of migration separated by hundreds of years brought repeated streams of migrants into Europe from the vicinity of the present-day shores of the Black Sea. And this was not just a few families finding a new home — whole peoples were on the move, driven by dramatic shifts in the climate of Eurasia that take place every few centuries and lead to widespread landscape changes across the unique biome of the Eurasian steppes.
Large scale migrations into Europe were nothing new, of course. Modern Europeans, like modern peoples anywhere, are a product of migrations that caused different cultures to mix and mingle. The first European humans arrived tens of thousands of years ago, mixing with Neanderthal groups already there.
These hunter-gatherers were forced into refuges in Iberia and the Balkans during the last ice age, then their range expanded as the glaciers retreated around twelve thousand years ago. About two thousand years after that — still thousands of years before the Indo-European migrations — migrants possessing the power of agriculture began moving into all corners of Europe.
Far from being the home of pale-skinned white people, Europeans of the past were as brown as anyone from the Middle East. It was the later migrations of the Indo-Europeans that brought the genes for pale skin and the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, which is why white people are termed Causasian.
The domestication of horses gave the peoples of the steppes a powerful new technology that made herding more efficient, so they could store more food and have bigger families. It gave whole clans the ability to pull up stakes and move to a new location with relative ease, because cattle and other livestock function as a store of wealth that can live anywhere grass grows.
The Celtic areas of Europe near the Atlantic, the Nordic regions around the Baltic and North Seas, the Medic city-states of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe all emerged through the same ancient mechanism: a long term blending of the horse-riders with farmers who had long before mixed with hunter-gatherers, each relying on different parts of landscape most suitable to their lifestyles.
The Indo-Europeans did not just go to Europe. Related groups called Indo-Aryans because of a characteristic linguistic shift visible in all daughter languages moved through Central Asia and Persia on their way to Northern India. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh — peoples in these places are in fact cousins of Europeans in terms of their languages and ancient mythology.
English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, and Russian are all related to Hindi, Bengali, Pashto, and Urdu despite the substantial distance separating Kolkata and Tehran from Edinburgh and Madrid. Each child tongue was produced by the same basic systemic process that results when different groups have to work out a new language to govern their interactions.
Naturally, as languages blend beliefs change too, aspects of different mythologies shifting as successive generations re-tell the old stories until someone works out how to write them down to make a particular telling permanent. Hinduism developed from the mixing of these incoming Indo-Aryans with the indigenous peoples. Its sacred language Sanskrit preserves a snapshot of the linguistic blending that occurred, allowing scholars to connect root words from the Indo-European times to those of the daughter language, showing its remote tie to modern English.
Most changes of this sort happen more slowly than we realize, with major eruptions prominent in the historic record and giving a false impression of how things really were. Written history offers a deeply biased sample of events, and written records were quite often made by self-interested elites who presented events in a particular way — or simply didn’t have solid first-hand information in a time when it moved at the speed of a horse.
The incoming Indo-Europeans were no more inherently warlike than the squabbling farming cultures they encountered, but mobility offers crucial advantages in warfare that later translated to high status. Horsemen are best countered with insurgent tactics, but these rarely prove conclusive in a conflict, so while the existing farming cultures likely mostly preserved their way of life the conquering horse-riders would have secured a privileged social position most places they went.
There’s a reason statues of famous men usually feature them on a horse — it’s an ancient symbol of power and privilege, horses not being easy creatures to keep healthy compared to cattle, goats, or sheep. In India, cows are famously held sacred, another relic of these ancient times, when a cow was the equivalent of a fat wad of cash and so valuable resource to be properly cared for by anyone with a whole, or as was common, partial claim to its products.
Most if not all early religious and spiritual institutions have at their core the goal of managing common or scarce resources over time. They act as critical checks on rational self-interest that otherwise leads to over-exploitation of a vital resource — a critical concept in the field of Political Ecology.
Hinduism’s separation of groups of families into castes and their tie to particular roles in society is a downstream legacy of the Indo-Aryan migrations into South Asia. It emerged from the challenge of binding a semi-nomadic people to a landscape filled with already ancient, wealthy cities they sought to rule. This stratification is what made Sanskrit into a sacred tongue that, like Latin, is effectively dead — it goes unchanged, preserved as a memory by a well-educated minority with an interest in maintaining it as a kind of sacred knowledge.
In most of Europe, however, the difficulties presented by the cooler climate made densely-populated settlements like those in India, Mesopotamia, the Americas, and China more difficult to establish. Within a few generations, most of the in-migrating horse-riding clans merged with the existing Europeans to form new communities dispersed across the continent. A complex network of tribal relationships allowed trade to develop and thrive, but for thousands of years the peoples of Europe remain almost dead to history — they simply lived.
Today mythologists have only been able to reveal fragments of the belief systems of ancient Europe, but what still exists, mostly what was written down by Christian priests a thousand years ago and compiled in the Poetic Edda, shows remarkable similarities to the Vedic myths of South Asia. These aren’t superficial similarities, either , as Witzel’s ground-breaking work shows — they track with linguistic shifts in the way the a core storyline is retold over and over again until only deep structures remain intact. What that implies is a long-term historic process at work that has had real-world consequences given Europe’s rise to global power in the colonial era.
In Southern Europe, the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses are so similar because of how geographically linked Italy and Greece have always been. They are less similar to but still relatives of the Nordic, Celtic, and Slavic pantheons, hence the strong parallels in many of the old stories, like a hero descending to the underworld to negotiate with its ruler for the life someone prematurely slain.
However, in Greece and Rome the underlying Indo-European mythos evolved in a unique direction. The gods of the Eddas and the folklore of places like Ireland and Poland are bound to vision of a world divided into tribes, some friendly and others not, placing emphasis on earned trust, loyal comradeship, and, most importantly, an intrinsic ethic of mandatory generosity that limits wealth accumulation by any one person or family.
Greece and Rome went a very different direction. In their “civilized” societies, individuals of proven merit, however measured, became part of a legal elite — a hereditary citizen class with special rights and privileges, especially with respect to owning of property.
Instead of wise Odin passing judgement over a foster child accused of mistreating guests and violating sacred norms of hospitality, the Greeks have Zeus getting into fits over some minor slight to his honor and raining thunderbolts onto Earth in between raping mortal and godly woman alike. Instead of Freyja’s world-renowned beauty signifying the visible wealth of a happy prosperous community, you get Aphrodite’s looks being bound to bitter dynastic wars and jealous feuds that drag regular people into pointless fights.
Southern European mythology glorifies the powerful who subjugate mortals to their whims. Individuals are encouraged to seek glory as the path to something like godhood, people encouraged to be the emperor of their domain, their property, which includes their wives, children, and slaves.
By contrast, most other European myths tend to present gods and heroes as benefactors as much as martial terrors to their enemies. They are paragons of ethical behavior in a pre-Christian society, the spats between gods like Odin and Thor mostly verbal and done to mark out domains, Odin being a god favored by chieftains and Thor the patron of free farmers.
There is simple explanation for this difference: proximity to Mesopotamia.
The conventional story of civilization as taught in school typically begins with the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. This is wrong, as the bones of civilization — organized collective action on a grand scale — are visible everywhere agriculture took hold, and it shows up simultaneously across the world in places utterly independent of each other.
But for Europe, Mesopotamia was long the source of many cultural imports that proved decisive in its history. Greece was on the outer edge of a system of powerful city-states centered on West Asia and became drawn into their wars. The misbegotten idea of “The West” was born out of the ancient Greek obsession with the power of successive empires to their east, culminating in Persia, which threatened to push into the territories of Athens and Sparta as the Ottoman Turks eventually did centuries later.
The expanding Roman Empire also ran up against challengers in old Mesopotamia and Egypt and so found it useful to adopt the same rhetoric. More or less, from the times of ancient Athens wealth elites were fascinated by the ancient power of the city states to their east — particularly the god-kings that ruled them.
Imitating their neighbors, powerful elite cliques in Greece and Rome forged empires through conquest. Interestingly, they paid scant attention to Northern and Eastern Europe for the most part, telling stories of lands filled with exotic barbarians including *gasp* women who waged war just like men. Western Europeans were treated the same way, but proximity to the sea meant it was easier to get there, so the Greeks and Romans came and subjugated the Celtic peoples living there.
And once Christianity was colonized by Roman elites seeking any excuse to maintain their power as their empire faded, the old ideology of the god-king was preserved in new forms. It remains to this day, buried at the heart of the faith system that is Liberalism of whatever flavor you prefer — capitalism, socialism, whatever — and damning the body of the thing utterly.
To find an alternative to Liberalism and articulate a philosophy that is truly focused on the best possible balance of freedom, equality, sustainability, and justice for all requires going back and rediscovering the essence of the true European worldview. The hidden hollowness of Liberalism is why it never lives up to its promise, and also why so many white people of European descent, especially Americans, are so quick to appropriate other cultures — ours was lost, and deep down we all know it.
Going abroad for inspiration is essential to reconstructing who we were, and this is where the ancestral connection between Buddhism and Norse Mythology comes into play. It is important to recognize that Buddhism is less a religion than a uniquely scientific approach to spiritual matters — the best you’re liable to find on this Earth.
Particularly if you read the work of the Dalai Lama, you’ll find that true Buddhism — not the mystical version too many Americans believe in — represents a direct synthesis between ancient traditions of proto-scientific empiricism and a liberation-focused worldview that renders all people equal in the grand scheme of morality and explains why we should care about how we act in this life.
Buddhism embraces a comprehensive, globally leveling worldview that aimed to be a patch for Hinduism’s problems with caste. By helping a person find freedom from worldly attachment, the Eightfold Path allows them to work out, on an individual basis, how the Four Truths factor into their own lives.
Like Hinduism, Buddhism assumes living things have what Europeans would call a soul, but it also points out the natural impermanence of everything that exists in this world. As the world changes, any soul embodied in it must be changed too. Karma is just the law of cause and effect, not some mystical force but a real-world scientific fact that the concept of reincarnation simply allows to impact a particular soul, a bundle of lived experience, across all its lives.
This creates a moral and ethical impetus for improving the world as much as we can in this life to avoid suffering in the next. As shedding attachment is naturally harder in a world filled with more pains and cares and griefs, building a better world as we are able to is rational if we hope to one day experience a life without so much misery.
Looking back at history, this idea has real-world meaning: objectively speaking, we live in the world our predecessors built through their actions, always affected by their attachments. The facts of being alive mean we have to act on the world in order to not die, our biology demands this of us, and so we are all trapped in a material world we must navigate.
Given that no science can ever prove what there is no evidence to evaluate, as is always the case when discussing anything metaphysical like God or the Soul, it is in fact scientifically rational to assume something like the soul exists and persists after death. There isn’t really a better way to imagine eternity while also accepting the basic reality that people disappear from this world and we never see them again.
Because mind can’t conceive of non-existence, if that is our fate, this simple truth, which you might call the fact of time, paradoxically implies that we have nothing to fear from death because we’ll have no ability to perceive what we’re not feeling. All we have to fear is being trapped in a future world where no release from suffering is even possible — and such a world can be built by human hands, condemning our successors to a life of living torment — and ourselves too.
Buddhism’s focus on cause and effect brings it much closer to the position of modern science than anything believed by science’s alleged Greco-Roman founding minds, celebrity philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates — if he wasn’t just a sock puppet for Plato, as I suspect. Truth be told most of these famous guys’ ideas were probably cribbed from something they stole from a Mesopotamian thinker at the time.
Mixing Buddhist modes of scientific thinking with the mythological traditions of old Europe produces something badly needed right now in the world: a paradigm that is inherently pluralist, tolerant, and focused on making the world a better place to the degree possible.
The world doesn’t need any philosophy that requires adherence to a strict canon controlled by experts. This simply turns one elite group’s perspective into the default for everyone, which is the root of racism, sexism, classism, and all the other many forms of bigotry that plague our lives.
A world full of diverse gods and powers we can placate, but never control, allows for true freedom of thought and expression to flourish. Everyone’s ancestors imbued gods with certain worldly powers as a way to classify and map the landscapes they had to manage to survive.
In the process, they began science, which is not a quest for truth, but the search for reliable explanations for observed differences that make the future predictable. Science requires difference to function. The basic experimental setup requires that all variables but one be controlled.
But what truly separates independent from dependent variables? Every thing in the material world is a composite of other things. All ideas stem from internal cognitive models churning on data obtained from our senses that tell us about the world around us. Reality is interconnected in fundamental ways that make it difficult to know anything in a purely objective sense. The relationship between objects is often as important as the attributes of the objects themselves — this insight is at the heart of systems thinking.
For our ancestors, gods were simultaneously aspects of nature and composite representations of real people living in the past, the stories of the gods being explorations of our own selves and the cultures we are all born into. The gods are real in this sense, and science has its gods too, gravity and entropy and the strange laws of quantum mechanics, no less ineffable and mysterious than the gods of Valhalla or Olympus at present.
According to this hybrid Buddhist-Norse worldview, the answer to the question of what life is all about is staggeringly simple: To build the world we will ourselves one day have to live in.
People remember notable incidents and extrapolate from them. The possibility of murder remains at the back of everyone’s mind when real murders occur, giving the act its own life, in a way. Someone already at the edge of violence is more likely to perceive murder as a viable option, a distinct act with defined consequences that paradoxically gives them power.
This is why mass shootings are so frequent in America. Switzerland has loads of guns in circulation, yet few mass killings. Why? Because a mass murderer is after something more than the killing itself. They want power, even if it destroys them — their act lives on, giving their one-shot Christian life perverse meaning otherwise lacking, as many will decide it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.
In a world of rebirth, if you commit murder in this life, you make it more likely you’ll experience it yourself someday. The same logic holds true for all the bad stuff in life — especially big stuff. Harm others, you wind up harming yourself — the law of Karma in action.
This rule has some clear implications for us all.
Don’t act to fix climate change? Expect to wake up one day in a world of horrible weather and resource shortages. Maybe you’ll be born in a refuge zone — or maybe you’ll be stuck in southern Florida.
Fail to abolish nuclear weapons? A future full of blasted, radioactive landscapes will greet you some day. Over a long enough period of time infrequent events like a global nuclear conflict become an inevitability if the possibility is not removed.
Let rich people, authority figures, or celebrity act like god-kings without consequence? You and all who live in the inevitable future yet to come will get to live out your days in a dystopia even more vicious than the one we already inhabit.
If you accept that all worldviews exist to serve some purpose on some level, make life more predictable and pleasant, then this one at least reminds people they should always try to improve the world however they can. And if not for others’ sake, then perhaps their own — and not as a one time deal, but always.
At the very least, if this became the social norm everywhere, powerful jerks would have a harder time of things. Liberalism has become an excuse for economic growth without purpose or limit, posing a threat to the planetary resource base we all rely on to survive.
To fix this shattered world, people have to synthesize different approaches to find a way to move forward. Even philosophical paradigms must evolve.
Systems science brings the methods. A hybrid of the best of Buddhism and whatever ancestral indigenous mythology you prefer— I use the Norse merely because my heritage is European — offers up new avenues of thought.
The future will be written by those of us living today. To pass on the best possible world we can, it is time to start adopting new philosophical approaches that restore science to its proper place by drawing on what has been part of all of us since the very beginning.
Rediscover your gods, and cast down the false prophets of modernity. The world is as it has always been, and it is our task to make it the best it can be.