A Date with the Clouds
The world weaves as Frigg spins
Frigg spins blood tonight
Yet no drop stains the city
As dusk falls, stars wink
— by J.P. Williams
In the warmer months of the year, I enjoy sitting on my balcony as the sun sets. A residential area lies in one direction and an urban business area in the other, buildings interspersed with greenery until they reach a line of factories and Tokyo Bay in the distance. Many nights I have a clear view of Mount Fuji, in whose general vicinity the sun sets. The winds from the sea tend to make for varied, dynamic cloud formations, which the sun bathes in some colors, limns in others: white and gold giving way to pink and red, purple and finally black. Get a little whisky in me and I just might think I’m witnessing a miracle.
But what kind of miracle? Genesis 1:2 has the Spirit of God moving across the water at the moment of creation and Christians would claim He hasn’t lost any interest in the world since. It’s a beautiful picture of the world, they say, for casting creation as fashioned by a loving intelligence omnipresent and ever-active, a picture more beautiful than cold rationality, sterile science and ultimately meaningless materialism can provide. If God is an other intervening in this world, then the clouds are a supernatural phenomenon.
We ought to know better. The clouds are airborne droplets of moisture, pushed by the wind and illuminated by the light of the sun, and no extra explanation is necessary. This picture is also impressive, as famous atheists like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins insist. He has called nature The Greatest Show on Earth (2009) and partnered with symphonic metal band Nightwish in lifting a phrase from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) for celebration of natural diversity on its album Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015):
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
I don’t disagree. If the clouds — or the tortoises, finches and beetles of the Galápagos Islands — are a miracle, they are a natural one.
A lot of people, however, need more non-rationally. This is a point that religious apologists make, sometimes honestly and sometimes as cover for superstitious beliefs and practices that usually draw on their insufficiently examined biases. In debate, Jordan Peterson will relate at length some fancy definition of “God” or “belief” that invests life with meaning while appearing to avoid literalism, thereby forcing Sam Harris to point out that sophisticated takes in defense of religion conveniently ignore that the majority of believers take even their religion’s most outrageous claims about reality and most reprehensible commandments quite literally. I’m usually rooting for Harris, but Peterson’s point is taken. Emotionally, socially and ethically, human beings — not everyone, but a lot — benefit from belief in things we know not to be true.
A Vision of the World Serpent (Revisited)
Dreams matter, so I investigated one of mine
The other night as I cloud-gazed, I decided to indulge my growing interest in Norse mythology. Looking up the Norse deity of clouds on my iPhone, I learned it was Frigg, wife of Odin, goddess of women, mothers, fertility and the sky. According to H.A. Guerber in Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas (1909), she has a palace of her own called Fensalir, and there she spins the clouds with a jeweled wheel or distaff. Guerber notes that the constellation many know as Orion’s Girdle was in the north named Frigga’s Spinning Wheel.
Norse mythology has more than Frigg to say about the clouds. The Prose Edda (ca. 1220) relates how the gods used the giant Ymir’s brains to fashion the clouds during creation, and the Poetic Edda relates how the dwarfs wrought for the god Freyr a ship hight Skidbladnir, the finest of all sea-faring vessels. Guerber says the ship was a representation of the clouds. Yet it’s Frigg who captures my imagination, even apart from the clouds. Fridthjof’s Saga(ca. 1300) contains the following:
“And Frigg’s mild eyes are blue and clear
As heaven, when no clouds appear”
The blue of the sky is the blue in the eyes of a goddess, and as we look up, she gazes down.
Looking for a good, preferably old, image to bring this goddess to life, I found the perfect one on Wikipedia, and it happens to be from illustrated editions of Guerber’s book. There Frigg sits amidst gossamer waves, almost Rapunzel-like, head bent to her task. She’s full of figure, bare of arm, delicate of hand and her crown, as was a common portrayal in more Wagnerian times, is winged:
When I looked back at the clouds after my research, they looked different. I could imagine Frigg up there, ensconced in an ever-changing landscape of empyrean gauze, fulfilling one of her many roles within a vast ethos. The clouds regained a measure of what they had when I was boy, lying in the grass, looking up and seeing fantastical creatures and landscapes. Wrong when it comes to the facts, Norse mythology’s picture of the world speaks on other levels, revealing metaphorical truth. The natural spinning of the clouds is also moving, but the effective fields of the two outlooks within the human spirit, while overlapping more than the stridently for or against religion would like to admit, are also far from perfectly congruent.
I think of philosopher Daniel Dennett telling Charlie Rose of his admiration for Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem (1865–1868), itself an interesting case. Often described as humanist, it borrows from Christian liturgical forms and scripture. I have an old multi-disc vinyl recording from Angel Stereo with gorgeous cover art taken from the Beaune Altarpiece (or The Last Judgment) by Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464). It depicts the Archangel Michael complete with wings bearing a pattern like that on peacock feathers to represent the resurrection and eternal life:
The insert notes by William Mann, however, contain a telling note on the composer’s spirituality:
“He was not a conventionally religious man, nor is there evidence that he was a Christian at all: it is significant that Christ’s name is nowhere mentioned in this Requiem.”
If the determinisms of the 20th Century taught us anything, it’s that we are creatures driven by much more than we can give rational assent or even understand. That means even atheists like Dennett and myself can benefit from attending to the poetry, music, art and even teachings of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, always with a mind to resist literalism.
I’ve included a few photos in this post. They’re nothing particularly impressive, just moments captured on the spur of the moment. You’ve seen sunsets before, though, so you know the real thing is better than any photo. Next time you enjoy sky-gazing, I hope you’ll spare a thought for Frigg and consider what the sight of the sky and its attractions means to you, whatever your beliefs.
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