Quantum Norse Cosmology
Turns out, the ancients had a pretty decent idea of how the universe works.
The smug priests of secular Western culture like to pretend that modern science has the answers to everything. War, recession — pick a complex topic, there is an “Expert” somewhere with all the answers.
But above all else the old gods hate hubris — and the death of the world we thought we knew that everyone on Earth is living through together in the 2020s is pure karmic revenge.
A basic principle of science is that to explain a given thing, you have to have another thing to compare it to.
All scientific knowledge stems from observations of difference. The process of science seeks to develop consistent, reliable explanations for the variation.
This is why in statistics, to investigate any question N in a population you have to have N+1 dimensions to evaluate — including at least two members (many more for true statistical validity).
Experiments work the same way, in the abstract: there is a test or treatment condition, and a control condition. One measures each before and after the test and evaluates the different outcomes.
Mythology is actually a basic form of scientific education, containing lessons once thought very important to people in the past. Humans naturally communicate by telling stories — even contemporary scientists present evidence as a kind of story, because storytelling is innate to the human condition.
The reason the world is full of diverse mythologies stems from the fact that Earth is a big place and different human lineages have occupied different parts of the world for so long they came to communicate using different languages and have developed their own localized stories about why the world they know is the way it is.
Because of this, mythology is not just “campfire stories” told by our ancestors, as Neil Gaiman puts it.
It is in fact the oldest record of scientific reasoning we have — and the worldview of the ancients holds important lessons for today.
Everything humanity is going through, they went through, even if the details naturally change from era to era.
E.J. Michael Witzel in his excellent Origins of the World’s Mythologies shows how virtually all mythologies around the world belong to one of two basic cosmological groups, one essentially evolving out of the other.
Cosmology is the subset of mythology dealing with the biggest questions of all: Life, Death, and the reasons for the world being like it is as we experience it.
Gondwana cosmology, as Witzel terms it, appears to represent the oldest remaining fragment of humanity’s ur-cosmology, something akin to the earliest language that all human ancestors might have shared when they emerged in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is something of a holdout, now most strongly visible in central Africa and Oceania — Australia, and New Zealand. Basically, places later human migrations didn’t reach.
Gondwana worlviews are characterized by a conception of the real world, the one we live in, as being essentially eternal: a progenitor deity made it then disappeared or became it, after that all the lineages of gods and animals emerged and shaped the world people were born into — often, interestingly enough, emerging from trees.
Laurentian cosmology emerges much later but is the dominant worldview underpinning modern cultures. Being younger and more widespread there is greater variation in the underlying mythemes — mythological tropes, essentially — but also offers a fuller picture of the underlying belief system.
In the Laurentian system, a full cosmological cycle appears, where the world itself is born and must one day die — this metadeath including even the gods. Other commonalities are seen across the globe too — several lineages or orders of gods who rise and fall and merge with one another, some kind of malevolent serpent appears, the world is destroyed in a great flood, and great wars and other calamities devastate the ancestors of the ancestors, dispersing people across the Earth and sundering languages and customs.
What is fascinating about both is how closely they match lines of reasoning actively discussed in physics and broader science today.
And that is useful to know, because the reality of modern cosmology is that it is almost as in the dark about the really big questions as our ancestors.
Yes, we have extremely consistent theories capable of describing the movement of atoms, chemical bonding, ecosystems, climate patterns, and even the nature of the distant stars.
But we still completely lack any kind of sense of why it all exists and works the way it does.
In Physics, leading minds still can’t even agree on how to reconcile two basic sets of theory, both proven valid and reliable in experiment after experiment but neither fitting with the other. Gravity and Quantum Mechanics are both incredibly valuable theoretical paradigms that have directly led to the improved quality of life so many people experience today.
But each works at very different scale levels: Gravity at the large end, connecting stars, planets, and even whole galaxies; Quantum the small, explaining the behavior of subatomic particles that form the substrate of existence.
I am not a cosmologist, by training. I did, however, spend more than ten years in academia studying across a variety scientific disciplines, earning a pair of graduate degrees and publishing peer-reviewed science. I also completed all the coursework required for a doctorate and had begun working on a dissertation when I finally realized most of American academia isn’t about building things, but endless self-serving debates that don’t advance science.
What I did next was write a six-book series that beats Tolstoy on word count and retells the cosmology of the ancient world through the eyes of six nerdy gamers who get dragged into the real war to end all wars — the one that will one day end all worlds… possibly forever.
Bringing Ragnarok was a neat saga to write and publish, and lots of people seem to like it, so I count myself fortunate.
But I also believe the deeper cosmological view I derived from the Norse Mythos and paired with a systems-based philosophy of science is of value summarized apart from the story, particularly with the world facing such hard times.
Time that, in a way, were predicted by the Eddas.
Norse mythology is in no way special, being only one branch, a single regional realization, of deeper, far older lore.
But it — particularly the poetic Eddas — does contain the most straightforward explanation of the cosmological worldview of the Norse part of the ancient world, emphasizing the critical questions of why the cosmos began and how it will end.
And it turns out these are the essential ones to ask if you want to truly understand the nature of our world and the meaning of life itself — from a scientific perspective.
All science depends on observation, but we can only observe those things we have the equipment to detect. Picking up gravity waves requires specifically aligned equipment in different parts of the world. Detecting the faint signals given off by small planets orbiting their parent stars is nearly impossible without telescopes in space.
And in our material universe, where so many things can be very neatly and reliably described according to the movement of electrons and atoms or the relativistic effects produced by gravity, all observation requires some kind of physical signal transfer.
Which means that on some level the equipment you use to detect something is also made up by some part of that thing itself. There exists some theoretical possibility of an unknown outside force affecting both detector and signal in such a way that the observation science relies on is biased in some way.
That is why electrons can be modeled as either particles or waves, despite these being two very different phenomena in the world of theoretical physics.
Obviously, this principle doesn’t mean that nothing is real and all science is so biased it is useless. Not at all.
It just means that you have to hold out the possibility of unknowable factors at every level of analysis — the N+1 principle applies even on the cosmic scale.
Which is why it is rational to assume that there is a reality beyond our own, or more likely even more — and not a simple multiverse, mind you — that’s very likely what our own reality is. But even a multiverse exists within something else.
It has to be kept in mind that the Norse loved metaphors and wordplay. Most of what made it into the Poetic Eddas can’t taken completely literally — just as the Bible cannot be taken literally by serious Christians.
But that is in fact why such stories from the distant past are so valuable: writers took great care to use the imagery and allusions that would provoke the strongest reactions.
The Eddas imply an ancient conception — as do many other mythologies — of multiple, totally independent worlds with their own specific effect on ours, which in at least the Norse view is — and here physicists take note — a composite of others.
Gravity and Quantum Mechanics may never totally reconcile in a single system of physics if each is driven by phenomena originating in distinct universes that only partially intersect with our own. Each theory may be like taking the limit of a curve at a given point — offering reliable information about that point and those nearby, but no others.
In the Eddas, Midgard — our World, the detectable material universe — came to be when the fires of Muspelheim (fire-home) mixed with the mists of Niflheim (mist-home) in the great void Ginnungagap.
A being known as Ymir — a licky cow, Audumla was allegedly involved too — who seems to have originated in Jotunhuim (troll-home) appears as the initial maker and shaper of Midgard.
But other beings — considered his children in the text, but probably meaning ‘people who came after’ given that the Norse were very pro-adoption and family lines were set by decree, not blood — also existed, and soon entered Midgard too. They killed Ymir for unspecified reasons (I speculate Ymir wanted to undo what he had done because of the consequences) whose body supposedly became the physical essence of Midgard.
Then these elder gods and took up residence in a place called Asgard, led by Odin Allfather.
My interpretation is that the fires of Muspelheim represent the raw matter that gravity — from Niflheim — and quantum laws — from Jotunheim — act on to produce the subatomic particles that build up to make atoms and molecules and so on.
These are not the only Worlds — there are Nine known to the gods of the Eddas. They are (in no particular order):
- Jotunheim —shape-shifting place of mountains, frost, inhabited by powerful, enigmatic shape-shifting beings known as Jotnar, Etin, or simply Trolls.
- Muspelheim —land of fire, source of matter, ruled (or at least defended) by a fiery being named Surtur who at Ragnarok will destroy all worlds.
- Niflheim — world of mist, source of gravity. Helheim and Hel-Hall, where damned human souls claimed by the Mistress of Torment go after death, are here.
- Asaheim—world of the Aesir, beings who value achievement above all else. Asgard is here, and is where happier souls claimed by Odin and Freyja go after death.
- Vanaheim — world of the Vanir, beings who value life above all else. Basically, a happy place for fertility gods. Probably beautiful but messy.
- Aelfheim — world of light and the Aelfar, creatures that wind up being called angels, demons, ogres, poltergeists, and other similar entities who often enjoy messing with humans in ways that can never be proven.
- Svartaelfheim — world of darkness, home of creatures who appear to be the dark halves of the Aelfar and shape magical materials — and sometimes people.
- Midgard — a multiverse that links all the other Worlds together and drew in their inhabitants, who have shaped our existence in innumerable invisible ways.
- Yggdrasil — a strange and almost completely inaccessible World that has roots in all the others.
There are other interpretations of the Nine Worlds out there, but this schema fits best with the deeper story Norse cosmology was telling us.
Because as much as the Poetic Eddas describes in detail how the world began, it also covers its inevitable end in a gritty tale that puts Revelations to shame.
Trapped and in torment for ages after challenging the gods, the trickster god Loke — Loki is the Icelandic spelling, Loke the Swedish, which I use because I’m an Amon Amarth fan — will get free and promptly move to take revenge on the gods of Asgard.
Every culture around the world has stories about their ancestral gods. Aspiring humans have always imitated stories told about these gods in order to gain power, lineages emerged insisting their family had inherited divine traits, and eventually in people’s minds stories and truth became muddled by the centuries.
But mortal or divine, gods all behave the same way. They get involved in squabbles and disputes, which escalate as they drag allies and subjects into the mess.
Eventually, this forever war will go so far that everything is destroyed.
And so will all Worlds die.
In the First War of the world, Aesir and Vanir fought a savage conflict, the latter using stealth and ambush to fight their horse-mounted adversaries and eventually laying siege to Asgard itself.
Odin, leading the Aesir, negotiated a truce that resolved their fight in the traditional way. Hostages were exchanged — the Vanir chieftain Njord came to rebuilt Asgard with his children Freyr and Freyja, while the Aesir sent a pair of corresponding nobles.
But the pair soon came into conflict with tribes of Jotnar, shape-shifting beings of immense power. Some, like Loke’s mother Laufey, were brought to Asgard to be raised there. Others attacked Asgard, fended off by Thor and the Einherjar — human souls taken after their death in Midgard to feast all night and practice war all day until the Last Battle at the End of Time.
Eventually, Loke reverts to the way of his Jotnar forebears and betrays his hosts in Asgard by contriving to have Baldr, son of Odin and his far-seeing wife Frygga, killed by using his one weakness — mistletoe. He also fathers three twisted children with a Troll named Angrbotha: Hel, Fenris, and Jormungand, foretold to destroy the world.
So the gods chain Loke in a cave, send Hel to rule over Hel-heim, bind Fenris — a werewolf foretold to kill Odin in the Last Battle — through trickery, and chase Jormungand far away, ever hunted by Thor. And there they will remain until Loke somehow gets free, in turn freeing his children and leading them to war against the gods of Asgard.
This conflict will, naturally, have devastating and horrific consequences in Midgard. For three seasons an unending winter will descend on Earth, a time of starvation, plague, and rising mayhem as the bonds that normally bind people together break. Brother turns against brother and the legions of Hel grow large — finally Loke leads a wicked army of frost trolls, fire giants, and undead to attack Midgard and Asgard.
There the gods ride out to war, and total, mutual devastation ensues. Odin is eaten whole by Fenris, swiftly avenged by his son. Thor kills Jormungand, the World-Serpent, at the cost of his own life. Loke and another god of Asgard, Heimdall, mutually kill each other.
Nobody really knows what the various goddesses do, but given the level of violence and the fact all are warrior-goddesses in their own right, one has to imagine they will do their share of killing and dying as well. After all, no one will be spared when Ragnarok comes: the Twilight of the Gods.
It all ends when Surtur and Freyr also kill one another, and Muspel’s champion erupts in an explosion that annihilates everything — not just Midgard, but all Worlds.
Everything — poof, gone. The End. Of everything — even time itself.
In terms of modern cosmology, this is effectively the Big Rip: the counter-force to the Big Bang. For some reason, and at some time in the future we can never know, the very laws that underpin existence as we know it will fall apart — or so thought the ancients.
And in this final Ragnarok, everyone — gods and mortals alike — will share the same fate.
What’s so brutally important to take from this is not despair at the inevitability of there being some kind of grand cosmic end. Despite appearances, this is not a fatalistic worldview.
What the ancients were telling us, what they wrote epic poems and sagas to warn us about, was that there are Ragnaroks great and small happening all the time.
Everything in the material world dies. Even rocks are eventually worn away, protons will some day decay. Change is inevitable, change is the only eternal.
But the way things die — and what comes after, is almost entirely defined by choices people make and the actions they take before, during, and after the fall.
The reason the Norse were so moved by the story of the apocalypse that they were the ones who made sure to write down those stories and not others was because their ancestors had actually lived through a few.
Regular episodes of climate change that happen every 500 years or so in Eurasia. There comes a drying spell which leads to lower crop yields from the Atlantic to the Urals. Animal ranges shift, so do the territories of steppe herders, producing conflicts that escalate as resources become scarce.
Plagues arise, carried by animals whose ranges shift in the right way to let cousins of the Black Death spread. Trade networks built by humans speed up the process.
And in a world where population and food supply are local and vulnerable to even a single bad year, only a few disruptions in a row leads to catastrophe. Northern Europe is also susceptible to volcanic eruptions in Iceland that plunge the area into ashy darkness. Combine both, and society is guaranteed to collapse —it has happened before.
Many, many times, in different places and at different times. But every now and again, in so many places at once the collapse truly is global.
Long before the Eddaic poems were ever written down (by Christians who left a lot out), volcanic eruptions and climage change and plague had more than once reminded Northern Europe of the warnings passed down in mythology for thousands of years before.
Each affected generation amplified them, taking care to point out for the benefit of future generations that winter is always coming.
To survive, individuals and communities must be prepared.
The story of Ragnarok is not a story of inevitable doom. Even if all things must die some day, this is in fact what gives that life meaning. Actions taken while a person is alive inexorably shape the world because cause and effect are always operating in the material universe.
Every action has consequences. Everything you choose to do or not do with the time you are granted on this world matters.
The story of the gods and how their struggles will one day damn us all is a call for acting however we can to mitigate the winter when it comes.
The Ragnarok saga is a warning and an exhortation. In the Eddas, despite the total destruction, some of the gods — and some people —a passage indicates that something will survive even the End of all Worlds. Baldr, the god of hope, and a few others may live again, rediscovering their forebears tools and building a new society.
On smaller scales, the Ragnarok cycle is happening all the time. Even the annual passing of the seasons is Ragnarok reified, perhaps in its purest expression.
Winter falls, and after, comes a new spring.
But the quality of that season and those that follow depend on how well you ride out the winter when it comes.
For hope to survive, the hopeful must be prepared. They have to understand just how little is truly certain in this world, and how much depends on building structures that can weather any storm.
And fast. Because global crises continue to mount, and time is already short.
The Ragnarok of our time has already begun.