One of the things I like about Journey to the West (one of the four great Chinese classics, but better known here as the basis for Monkey Magic) is the way it delves into almost every conceivable corner of Chinese cosmology. Characters venture to the courts of dragon kings, to heaven and to the netherworld. In each of these places they come across the same universal constant.
The entire universal order is run by bureaucracy.. Official records of death get amended by clerical staff in the afterlife in order to resurrect the dead; dragon kings appoint humans lost in their realms as administrators with such supernatural responsibilities as irrigation; and pivotally the destabilising Monkey takes umbrage with the lowliness of his official post in the bureaucracy of heaven. It’s not hard to see why Arthur Waley’s translation/adaptation presented this as satire. There is plenty of great humour in the work already, and the conceit has also been used by the likes of Tim Burton and Tim Schaefer. But it is simply a reflection of the world view of the society in which it was written. Creation myths often involve birth because we extrapolate what is natural to us, and obviously any god is an anthropomorphisation to some extent. A society with such a long history of central government and administration that claimed cosmic legitimacy by it’s good governance would find bureaucracy as natural as birth to extrapolate to the cosmos.
Still, I naively thought that such close reflection of real world polity was fairly unique to the Chinese experience. I figured whilst everyone would impose humanity in the universe it would be rare to have the cosmos reflect the political so absolutely closely. I thought it would take such a long running and complex state such as the Chinese to seem natural enough for the heaven. Other notions of heavenly kings and chiefs were more vague anthropomorphisations.
Then I realised that the Vikings had done the same. We are misled by Abrahamic notions of the afterlife when we think of Valhalla as the Viking heaven. It’s another human state imposed on the cosmos, only this one is considerably less complex.
In early Norse society, before the consolidation of kingdoms, polities were small and scattered. A leader with a hall which served as his base. A warrior (or poet) could serve a lord and be able to spend the sunless winters in the hall, or they could be outside the polity in the dark and miserable cold. Valhalla is the hall of Woden where he has gathered warriors for a specific battle in the future (Ragnarok) and like any good lord is providing this hall as his part of the social contract. The alternative to winning a part of this contract is the dark and miserable cold of Hel. Hel is not punishment, just the miserable winter outside the hall. It’s just the only alternative to being part of the polity.
This leads to some speculations that underline just how strange this extrapolation of the order down here would be if we did it.
Imagine if our notions of creation and the cosmos suddenly were to be rebuilt. Australians would have our view of the natural order differ from the Americans. How natural it would be to us to understand that the God of thunder must be responsible to controls the Department of Thunder only with the support of the celestial parliament. Americans would in turn understand that the natural order is that the God of Thunder may be approved by the celestial congress, but is only responsible to the Head of Cosmic state, whose powers are unmatched by carefully limited.
I fear ourepics would lack a bitof stirring excitement and valour. Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad Gita or the sagas of the Poetic Edda are probably far more entertaining and inspiring than raucous yelling fests. “Mr Speaker, if the God of Thunder can’t even install pink clouds properly, then how, Mr Speaker, can he manage to run a weather system running over the whole of the world?”.
This is probably an unsung leagacy of theAbrahamic cosmological view.