Germany, Myth, and My Generation
Imagine growing up in a culture that holds alive a mythology, a central story that puts us human beings in relationship to that human and more-than-human world which surrounds us. Imagine a culture that holds nature and culture as a generative dialogue instead of favoring dominance and control.
Now imagine growing up in a culture that seems to have lost such a connection. What would that culture look like? What would everyday life be like?
Next, take a look at the immensity of global climate change, the shear rebelling and crying of the earth against the way we treat her due to having lost a story that puts us in relationship with her.
Finally, imagine growing up in such a culture, but feeling that something is inherently wrong, something essential is missing at the heart of that dominant cultural narrative. And imagine that it is not just a few people, but a whole young generation, clearly seeing through this illusion of independence of humans from nature.
Where would you turn for inspiration and more healthy ways of relating to one another and especially the earth? Where would you turn to recover that which promises to give back the depths to a shallow consumer life?
The answer is quite simple: You turn away from the center and move towards the edge. You gain some distance from the omnipresent and overwhelming shininess of this modern lifestyle, and begin to explore other ways of knowing and being.
Oftentimes you travel very far.
For me, this started in 9th grade with a growing interest in the question of how to relate differently to nature. I began to look at indigenous cultures around the world as a role-model. Entering university, I realized that I wasn´t alone in this, but that there was in fact a whole movement of young seekers traveling to all corners of the world, from Asia/India to Africa, across South America and North America, trying to recover a sense of a healing story – exploring the world’s religions and spiritual traditions in search for some lost spirituality. Interestingly, many of those traveling the world in search of something deeper seem to be Europeans – and in my experience, often specifically Germans.
We were searching in to the far corners of the world for something lost. I began to wonder: why are we searching so far?
Soon, I began to train to offer ritualized fasts on the land. Entering this world, I was immediately connected to a language that could hold a deep connection to the earth. While I was incredibly blessed to have Jeremy Thres as my teacher, towards the end of the training the strong question arose: how I could find my own style and language of holding these processes? To frame it quite simply, I could say that I didn´t know what gods to pray to anymore.
Feeling this, I took a step back from rites of passage work to figure out my relation to this work, and to also find my place with it in Germany (where I come from and would return to).
It didn’t start to dawn on me that I was onto something crucial here until I found myself as the only German sitting in the Westcountry School of Myth, studying with Martin Shaw on Dartmoor in England, in a room full of British people. We were exploring myths of the land we were on. Soon, stories from Celtic and British heritage started to seep into the atmosphere of the room.
But where was I in all this as a German? Something felt off, and it was probably the very first time I could really feel it. Looking at Germany from the perspective of Britain, there seemed to be only a huge void in terms of mythology and cultural identity.
Yet, in that moment, something claimed me. I started to wonder why I had always been fascinated by Europe more than by traveling the world. I started to wonder why I had such a pull towards the middle-ages. I started to wonder why in terms of subcultures, the medieval and metal scenes had such a fascination for me, and apparently for other people as well. Besides music, you just have to take a look at Hollywood and the popularity with which movies relating to Northern European Mythology (i.e. Marvel´s Thor) have been received to see that there is a growing desire for these kinds of stories.
And then, I saw into the heart of the matter as I read a line in Shaw’s writings, which roughly said: “a culture which has lost its mythological ground is truly lost indeed.”
Looking at Germany, this seems to have been the case. This makes sense given German history. The Nazi regime was not only build on political propaganda, but heavily adopted mythological stories of Germanic northern mythology to support its supposed dominance over any other race. In the aftermath of the cruelties arising from these years, the whole subject of mythology seems to have been erased from following generations and the education system that tried to repair the abuse. But maybe, in the rationalist attempt to cleanse any possibility of such a thing happening again, they threw the baby out with the bathwater, leaving behind a mythological void.
In the absence of a mythological literacy that enlivens the imagination and that passes a participatory story from one generation to the next, the fairy tales and rich cultures merely became stories in a book. The world around us has lost its spirits.
In this absence, materialistic culture rose to prominence, dominating nature through technology instead of courting a reciprocal relationship with gentle crafts. But humans are still humans and they need a story to make sense of their world! In a weird way, pop culture took its place, and movies and computer games are now where the fantasy is allowed to express itself. As everyday life and work become more and more sterile and soulless, people seem to gravitate towards such distractions and escapes into “other worlds”.
And even the agenda to cure the disease of nationalism by eradicating germanic mythology seems to have failed. Looking at the current events in the aftermath of a wave of refugees, nationalism and extremity is rising to all-time highs, indicating that the pure rational attempt of dealing with the traumas in the cultural soul might not have worked the way it was intended to.
In the search for a mythology that is able to hold a close relationship to the earth again, the “northern myths” seem to have retreated somewhat to Scandinavia, leaving the heart of Europe and especially Germany empty as a historical meeting place and clashing point for belief systems for thousands of years.
In this increasing tension, how do you engage with stories from this land without being instantly put into the “nazi” box? How do you start a mythological healing process in which you uncover a root system of stories in relation to the land we live on?
I recently moved to Bonn, not really knowing what pulled me. As soon as I realized that the “Drachenfels” which is related to the Siegfried saga, the German myth, is just around the corner, I began to get a sense of what could be waiting here to be unearthed. Walking along the Rhine, if you closely pay attention, you start to get a sense of this massive landmark and the important boundary quality between the Roman Empire and its adopted Christianity and the pagan Germanic peoples of the north. Throughout hundreds of years in history, the German landmass has been a battlefield of religions, cultures and empires with their according stories and beliefs.
Embarking on such a mythological healing journey would entail a deep dive into this confluence of peoples and stories: their wanderings and victories, as well as their losses and dissolutions. It would require a deep study into the prevalent struggle of belief systems to understand just how deep of a rootedness mythology provides. It would require digging deep to unearth something that might end the endless search for some relationship to the land that drew me and others to the far corners of the world, at the expense of digging into the particular piece of landmass that holds the bones of our ancestors.
How do we hold these questions against a postmodern cosmopolitan backdrop?
Maybe, in order to find and embody a more alive, animistic relationship to that which we are a part of, we need to learn to hold this tension, neither getting consumed by shallow consumer culture, nor pretending as if we could just go back in time to the romanticized roots.
Maybe this is exactly the struggle of the young generation growing up in Germany and Europe: How do we not let blind nationalism cloud the fact that we are all humans with similar longings for belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity? How do we turn the looking-glass back at the particular strap of earth beneath our feet in order to get claimed by a place again, and turn our ears to the intricate small, place-based stories that desire to be beheld and told?
Working in a rites of passage context would then specifically be related to this invitation, holding a space in which to listen to the stories of the land again.
With migration as a main influencer of the cultural climate, initiatives heading towards further integration and openness are facing an all-time high of nationalism and protectionism, not only in Germany but the whole world. Freedom and security are a dichotomy seemingly insurmountable. Old structures and forces that are loyal to a hyper-capitalist and extractivist system are confronting a growing movement that is ready to embrace new ways of being. We young people are caught in between and, depending on our contexts and surroundings, might gravitate towards either a reinforcement of a disconnection from the earth, from stories and from each other– or toward liberation of the human spirit heading towards deeper connection.
So, to conclude, this is an invitation to hold this tension: exploring what stories are needed today that can navigate between ancient and new, providing a mythological ground on which we can grow a healthy culture again that is connected to both the universal and the particular. It is an invitation to allow stories to become part of a healing that is taking place between generations as well as between humans and the earth.
*Photo taken by Jörn in Sweden in Tanumshede last summer. These are some of the oldest remains of bronze age civilization (mythology) in that area of Sweden.