The Effect of Cultural Mythology on the Fictional Mythology of Tolkien
By: Oliver King
One of the finest literary writings of our time is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to this trilogy, Tolkien wrote many fascinating stories that have captivated readers for nearly a century. One of his masterpieces, though it is not as well known, is The Silmarillion, in which he weaves the foundation for all his other tales. It is the Silmarillion that provides and illustrates the mythology and legends that are the background for the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion itself has become a mythology worth study and can easily compare to other cultural mythology. In the pages to follow, this essay will compare and contrast briefly the various creation stories and the fourteen majors deities of Tolkien mythology to their most direct counterparts throughout Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic mythologies. This essay will show that Tolkien has created an epic tale that any mythology fan will embrace.
At first glance, the Silmarillion appears to have a direct correlation to the Bible. The character Iluvatar creates from his thought the Ainur. The Ainur made a great music before Iluvatar in which several themes occurred. In the end Iluvatar made visible the music of the Ainur and they watched briefly the history they produced as it unfolded before them. After the vision, the Earth was left and some of the Ainur desired greatly to guide into reality the vision they had seen. Of cultural mythologies little comparison can be made. In Egyptian, Norse, and Greek mythologies in the beginning there was nothing and the first of the gods came from that nothing. Eventually all the gods came from those first. However, Tolkien’s creation begins with the supreme god Iluvatar already in existence and creating the Ainur from his thought. This is most comparative to the creation in the Bible. However, in the Bible, God creates everything himself without the aid of the angels. Tolkien, however, allows the Ainur to create unknowingly after giving them a general idea about the theme of the music. A complete Biblical picture of God, his angels, and Lucifer is constructed with the fall of Melkor to evil during the music of creation and his attempt to control the music with his great discord. When the music was complete, Melkor was cast out. Also Iluvatar gave great might to Melkor and Manwe and they were considered the chieftains. However, when Melkor fell to evil, Manwe became the sol leader of the Ainur. This is another direct Biblical comparison to Lucifer and Michael the Archangel. However, the Biblical parallel stops here.
After the creation, fourteen of the Ainur (not counting Melkor who has now been cast out) descend to the Earth to rule it. It is here that they begin to possess traits similar to that of cultural gods. Tolkien even makes a point to state that the people of the Earth referred to the Valar (the name given to the fourteen Ainur who descended to the Earth) as gods. Iluvatar, however, becomes somewhat of a mystery. At first he appears to be portrait of the Biblical God, but after the descent of the Valar he remains remote and only intervenes when the Valar deviate from his plan. The Valar are completely subjective to him, but are allowed to create and rule, as gods, as long as Iluvatar is pleased. However, Iluvatar like God, seems to have an overall plan from the beginning to the end. It is the duty of the Valar to ensure the success of that plan. It is important to note that the Valar are all of good nature and intend no harm or discomfort to any person on the Earth. This is unique when comparing to cultural myths. Most gods live according to their own wealth and prosperity. The Valar live according to the prosperity of the Earth.
The villain of the Silmarillion is Melkor. Melkor’s first comparison is to Lucifer, better known as Satan. In fact, Tolkien writes of Melkor, “From splendor he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless.” and the book of Isaiah chapter 14 verse 12 says of Lucifer, “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” Melkor desires to rule the Earth (Arda) alone and will stretch to any means to accomplish this. His primary task is to destroy or pervert anything that the Valar create. It is in this way that he can also be compared to the Norse god Loki. Loki was a mischievous god who was jealous of the success and power of the other gods. As the mythology of the Norse aged, Loki became associated with wrong doings and evils. Norse mythology is set apart by Loki from the Greeks, Celts, and Egyptians. The other three cultures did not specify a god for evil. Melkor appears to be a combination of Lucifer and Loki.
King of the Valar is Manwe, Lord of the Breath of Arda, and ruler of the winds. Through surveying cultural myths, we find two direct comparisons to Manwe. The Egyptian god Amun was originally a god of wind and ruler of the air and was eventually made supreme god of the entire realm and king of the gods when combined with Re as Amun-Re. Perhaps a better and more descriptive comparison would be the Greek god Zeus. Zeus was originally worshiped as a weather god by the Greeks. Though Manwe is not directly responsible for the weather, both he and Zeus are definitely identified with the same region of rule. Zeus set his home on Mount Olympus so he could survey all that happened on the Earth. Manwe set his home on Taniquetil, the highest mountain, for the very same reason. Both Mt. Olympus and Taniquetil are gathering places for the gods of both mythologies. Zeus, like Amun, is petty and vengeful and Manwe is not. This personality trait is the most striking difference between the cultural gods and the Tolkien gods and will follow in nearly every example.
Queen of the Valar and spouse of Manwe is Varda. Varda is known as the Lady of the Stars and is most closely associated with stars, but her function seems to be goddess of any type of light source. Varda does not compare to Apollo or any other “light” or “sun” god because she does not lord over nor control the lights. More specifically she creates them and maintains them. In Greek mythology, Astraea was know as the Star-Maiden and also as a goddess of justice. The parallel here appears most notable in their titles, Lady of the Stars and Star-Maiden. However, a more indirect comparison is seen in Astraea’s function as a goddess of justice. Varda is Queen of the Valar and is one of the most beloved characters in Tolkien mythology. The elves named her Elbereth and called on her by name. This seems to indicate that Varda became a goddess of help or assistance, perhaps of justice. Though it is never stated in Tolkien’s writings, it is implied. Varda’s association with the stars lends her to another comparison. In Celtic mythology there is the goddess of astronomy, Sirona. The function here is simply the knowledge of the stars and perhaps a designer. Varda definitely fits that description. A false comparison would be toward the Greek goddess Hera. Though Varda is Queen of the Valar, Hera’s function and disposition lend no comparison.
Ulmo, Lord of the Waters, serves as a god of multiple functions. His initial comparison is as a god of the sea. The Greek god Poseidon is the best comparison available. Tolkien wrote that Ulmo was one of the four greatest of the Ainur. He loved the ocean, while Manwe loved the winds. This is similar to the relationship between Poseidon and Zeus. Poseidon, Zeus, and Hades drew lots to see what part of the Earth each would have dominion over. Zeus was given the air and sky; Hades the underworld; and Poseidon the seas. Poseidon is a more noble sea god than Aegis (Norse), Amathaunta (Egyptian), or Mannann (Celtic). The other three sea gods are very carefree and almost careless. Poseidon is very thoughtful and methodical, as is Ulmo. However, Tolkien gives Ulmo a unique characteristic. The god of the sea is also the god of the weather, unlike other myths that have the god of the air as god of the weather. In this case, it can be said that Ulmo is a god of ALL waters. He sends rain from the ocean to the land. This is an aspect that is unique and has no comparison. Ulmo is one of two Valar that do not have a spouse.
Aule does not have a distinct title, and even his job description is somewhat vague. He is best described as Lord of Substances. It is he that forms mountains, precious stones, and caverns. He is also a metal worker and creates armor and weaponry. It is Aule that created the dwarves because he wanted students to learn his craft. Most myths break Aule’s job into several gods. However, the best comparison available is the Greek god Hephaestus. Hephaestus is best known as the god of fire, especially blacksmith’s fire. He was the patron of craftsmen, principally those working with metals. However, he also became the god of volcanoes. Due to this last trait, Hephaestus is Aule’s closest comparison. Aule is the last of the most powerful of the Ainur, which also include Melkor, Manwe, and Ulmo.
Aule’s spouse is Yavanna. These two compliment each other in that Aule is god of earth and Yavanna is goddess of vegetation. Her delight is in trees, but she is described as creating all growing plants. She is the Giver of Fruits and Queen of the Earth. Only one comparison is found across cultural mythology, the Greek goddess Demeter. Demeter is the Greek Earth goddess who brings forth the fruits of the earth, particularly the various grains. She taught mankind the art of sowing and plowing so they could end their nomadic existence. Demeter provides a good description to Tolkien’s Yavanna. They are very similar in nature and appearance.
Tolkien created a god that is somewhat unique and difficult to find a comparison. His name is Orome and he is the Hunter of Fell Beasts. He delights in horses, hounds, and forests, which is typical of the British huntsman. However, Orome differs from other hunter gods in that he only hunts the perverted beasts of Melkor and can best be described as an exterminator. Orome is solemn and performs his task with the utmost grimness. For this reason a slightly different approach was made to determine Orome’s comparison. Vidar, in the Norse mythology, is the god of silence and revenge and is the second strongest of the gods. This comparison is weakened by the fact that Vidar is not necessarily a hunter. None-the-less, Orome’s disposition lends him to vengeance and silence. Perhaps a closer comparison is found in Egyptian mythology with Anhur. Anhur is the warrior and hunter god. He personified royal warriors and was the champion of Egypt. The comparative characteristic is that Anhur hunted and slew the enemies of Re. Orome is also concerned with hunting and slaying the enemies of his master. Also, the Greek goddess Nemesis is the goddess of divine justice. She sought to put right the injustices that the humans created. However, she is not a hunter, and her vengeance is directed toward ordinary people.
Very little is known about Orome’s spouse VÃ�Â¡na. She is known as the Ever Young, which might suggest that she was a goddess of youth. In this way she may compare to the Norse goddess Idun, who is the goddess of eternal youth and the custodian of the golden apples of youth. She may also compare to the Greek goddess Hebe, who is also a goddess of youth. However, one of the few descriptions of VÃ�Â¡na is that flowers and birds follow her wherever she goes. This characteristic shows that VÃ�Â¡na could also serve as a goddess of spring, leading to a comparison with the Greek goddess Chloris. Chloris was the goddess of flowers and the personification of spring. No mater what the comparison, very little is said of VÃ�Â¡na in Tolkien’s writings.
In each mythology there is a god of the dead in one form or another. Tolkien is no exception. His “Keeper of the Houses of the Dead” is named Namo, and his domain is called Mandos. In Egyptian and Celtic myths, the gods of the dead or underworld are very non-descriptive. Norse mythology paints a very vivid, but very evil and dark goddess named Hel. Greek mythology provides the closest comparison to Namo, in Hades. Hades is one of the three Greek gods that drew lots for their domains. He is perhaps more noble and business-like than any other god of the underworld. Namo is a likable character that does not flaunt or lord his position over his charges. He is simply the Keeper of the Houses of the Dead as earlier stated. Though this is quite different from the personality of Hades, Namo is by no means the depiction of evil and nightmares that the Norse goddess Hel implies. This comparison is far from accurate, but it is the only one available.
Namo’s spouse is Vaire and she is known as “The Weaver”. At first glance it appears that Vaire weaves events in time. There are two cultural goddesses that perform this duty, the Norse goddess Bil and the Greek goddess Clotho. Bil is rather non-descript but appears to be similar to Clotho. Clotho is the youngest of the fates and she spins the thread of human life with her distaff. However, upon further investigation, this comparison for Vaire is not accurate. Vaire weaves events into a tapestries that line the halls of Mandos. In this respect it appears that Vaire fits the role of goddess of history rather than fate. History and record keeping were immensely important to the Egyptians, and though there may be lesser gods of history in other cultures, they had a husband and wife pair of gods devoted to record keeping and writing. Seshet was the Egyptian goddess most associated with writing of histories and names. It is she who records the life of the Pharaohs upon the walls of palaces and tombs. This is a more accurate comparison for Vaire.
Namo’s brother and the “Master of Visions and Dreams” is Irmo and he dwells in the gardens of Lorien. Lorien, under the management of Irmo, seems to embody a dream-like state, similar to the Elysian Fields of the Greeks, but Lorien is a place for the living not the dead. Irmo himself is best compared to the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. Morpheus is the shaper of all dreams and the substance of dreams. Irmo has a similar duty, but it is seemingly confined mostly to his garden of Lorien.
Lorien becomes a wonderful, restful, and peaceful place with the addition of Irmo’s spouse Este. Este is called “The Gentle” and is healer of hurts and weariness. With Este Lorien becomes a place of sleep and rest, a place for the weary. Only two comparisons are found for Este and both deal with healing. First, the Celtic god Dian-Cecht is god of healing and physician to the gods, but he plays little significance in the Celtic mythology. Second is the Norse goddess of healing, Eir. Her name mean means “mercy” while Tolkien writes that Este’s name means “rest”. Eir knew the secret powers of herbs, but only taught it to women. She was the patroness of health-care workers. Este did not use herbs but had a healing pool in Lorien where the weary and hurt may lie beside or bathe. However, Este’s art was not taught but was available for all.
Perhaps most prominent in all mythologies are the various gods of war. Tolkien, indeed, also had a god of war whose name was Tulkas. Tulkas was known as “The Valiant” and laughed continually during a fight. However, due to the personality of Tulkas, he cannot be compared to the Greek god Ares, the Egyptian god Menthu, or any of the many Celtic war gods because of their pettiness in nature and their disregard for order and justice. There is one cultural god that stands out as a god of war and justice, the Norse god Tyre. Tyre was the precursor to Odin who eventually took his place as god of war. Unlike other gods of war Tyre fought wars justly and to right wrongs. Tulkas, though carefree seemingly, only fights against Melkor to correct injustices. Both Tulkas and Tyre are considered to be the bravest of their order and they make for the most accurate comparison of any of Tolkien’s gods.
The spouse of Tulkas, Nessa, is yet another of the Tolkien gods that remain obscure with few distinguishing characteristics. The extent of Nessa’s description is that she loves dancing and deer and the only event she is seen is at the wedding of Nessa and Tulkas in which Tolkien states she danced before all the Valar. With only this brief glimpse of Nessa she appears to serve somewhat of an entertaining or distracting role. In Greek mythology there are a group of goddesses with a similar duty, The Graces. The Graces were Greek goddesses of gracefulness and the charms of beauty. The gods were delighted when they danced to Apollo’s Lyre. They were young, beautiful, modest, and perfectionists of gracefulness. Their names meant splendor, mirth, and good cheer. If Nessa’s connection with deer is interpreted as a symbol of her gentleness, gracefulness, and modesty then Nessa becomes a Tolkien version of The Graces.
Last of the Valar, and perhaps the most eluding of all, is Nienna. Nienna resides alone with her grief and lives to perfect it. She is the Tolkien goddess of Mourning and continually mourns the evils of Melkor. Through her mourning she teaches those that would learn patience, sorrow, and wisdom. When searching for a comparison only gods and goddesses of wisdom could be found, though none could compare to any of Nienna’s other characteristics. Interestingly enough, there are no major deities of mourning in the four cultural mythologies covered here. In light of such information, it becomes accurate to state that Nienna is completely unique in Tolkien mythology and becomes the most evasive to understand through comparison.
Tolkien created another group of beings whose duties were to help and serve the Valar. They are called the Maiar and can also be referred to as the demi-gods of Tolkien mythology. Tolkien writes that the Maiar are of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. There are only a few of these that are named in Tolkien’s writings, such as: IlmarÃ�Â«, the handmaid of Varda; EÃ�Â¶nwÃ�Â«, the banner-bearer and herald of Manwe; OssÃ�Â«, master of seas that touch the shore; Uinen, spouse of OssÃ�Â«; and OlÃ�Â³rin, wisest of the Maiar. There were Maiar that served Melkor as well and these have appeared extensively and dramatically in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They are the Valaraukar, or Balrogs, “scourges of fire”- one of whom Gandalf faced on the bridge of Khazad-dÃ�Â»m; and Gorthaur, also known as Sauron “the Cruel”, who is the chief enemy in the Lord of the Rings. There are two other specific Maiar of which have very distinct comparisons in Norse mythology. Arien is Lady of the Sun and it is she who guides the sun through the sky. Tilnon is the steersman of the Moon. Tolkien writes that Tilnon is enamoured by the beauty of Arien and tries to draw close to her. It is for this reason that on occasion both the sun and the moon can be seen during the day. Occasionally Tilnon will come too close and be darkened by her brightness for a time, or come even closer blocking the light of Arien from the Earth. In Norse mythology there is a similar tale of Sol and Mani. Sol rides through the sky in a chariot pulled by horses. She is chased during the daytime by the wolf Skoll who tries to devour her, just like the wolf Hati chases her brother at night. An eclipse would occur if the wolves ever caught Sol or Mani and the people would make a great noise to try to scare the wolves away. Also it is important to note that both Arien and Sol are female, and Tilnon and Mani are male. The correlation between the two myths is rather uncanny and Tolkien seems to have borrowed from the Norse.
It took years upon years for the mythologies of the Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, and Celts to develop into the format and detail that is available now. Through those years many writers took to the task of writing the oral stories of their culture. However, Tolkien created his mythology solely, giving it much effort and time, eventually becoming his and only his brainchild. He not only created the mythology, he created cultures, stories, characters, and even languages complete with dictionaries, grammar, and pronunciation guides. Through his story weaving Tolkien chanced to write a history of the world, attempting to weave Biblical history with cultural mythology to produce an all inclusive tale that could find support in both the Biblical and non-Biblical camps. This was perhaps the greatest literary undertaking ever attempted by mortal man and Tolkien succeeded is such a way that his writings are beloved around the world. Is it fair to compare Tolkien to cultural mythologies? Yes. Tolkien was actually a distinguished philologist and was professor of Anglo-Saxon and of English language and literature at Oxford University. He knew better than most that mythologies are the stories that bind cultures together and with that he sought to create a new mythology in the realm of literature that has bound literary fans together in a way that not even he could have expected. In the same way the Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, and Celts borrowed from each other, Tolkien simply borrowed from them. It is the familiarity of mythologies that attract fans across the globe. Tolkien did not seek to steel, rewrite, or supplement cultural mythologies. He simply wanted to attempt was has not been done for centuries by any author or storyteller of the least or highest degree of literary competence: create mythology.
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