Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

(A draft of one of my Dedicant book reviews.)

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson, recounts the lore of the Nordic culture in great detail, providing the student an accessible survey of what we know about the deities revered in Iceland, Norway and other Scandanavian lands in pre-Christian times.

Apart from the Romans and the Greeks, the Norse lore is probably the best-preserved and most generous collection available of any Indo-European culture. Between the Poetic and Prose Eddas and the various sagas handed down, there is wealth of information about Odin, Thor, Freyr, Freya, Balder, Heimdall and others.

However, as Ellis Davidson points out, this lore doesn't come to us unfultered. It was committed to writing during the Christian era, by Christian authors. Separating the authentic heathen lore from the Christian glosses can be challenging. The opening chapters of the book describe the sources, and then summarize the overarching themes of the lore – the cosmology and creation, the relationships of the Aesir, Vanir, Jotun, dwarves, elves and man, the binding of Fenrir, the coming of Ragnarok and other major stories.

Turning to the actual myths and gods, Ellis Davidson devotes most of the book to Odin and Thor, with Freyr, Freya, Heimdall, Loki and other figures getting briefer surveys. Given the prominence of Odin and Thor is the religious lives of the ancient heathens, this seems appropriate. She examines Odin's role as warrior god, as cognate to the Roman Mercury, and as a shaman. On the latter point, she describes Odin's journey to the underworld on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, as recounted in the poem Baldrs Draumar. Sleipner also tarveled to Hel – whether the rider was Odin or an emissary is unclear – to try to reclaim the slain Baldr. Odin hung on the World Tree to discover the runes, and has the power to send out his spirit in animal form.

Thor is presented as the powerful god of action, defender of Asgard, the friend of man, adversary of the Jotuns and other powers that would seek to do harm. With his iconic hammer, Mjollnir, Thor slays giants. He is married to Sif (about whom little is known). Thor is associated with the sky, and therefore, the weather, thunder in particular.

Thor also was portrayed as a powerful adversary to Christ, and Ellis Davidson includes accounts of his appearing in a dream to a recent convert, warning him to return to Thor or else be consigned to rough seas and "never to be delivered from them." In another incident, Thor stirs up a storm to shipwreck Christian missionaries.

Turning to the deities of fertility, drawn from the Vanir, Ellis Davidson details what is known of Freyr and Freyja, the twin son and daughter of Njord. It was apparently customary for the image of gods of abundance tobe drawn through the land in a wagon, to be worshipped and sacrificed to when they passed through. Ellis Davidson recounts a story that she says was probably intended to be comic, about the servant of King Olaf impersonating Freyr and delighting the Swedes because the god could suddenly eat and drink with the people. Tacitus, meanwhile, recounts a practice in Denmark of a priest pulling a wagon bearing the image of the goddess Nerthus through the land.

Then come longer sections on Freyr, the Earth Mother and Freyja and the Vanir overall.

Ellis Davidson then turns to gods of the sea, the gods of the dead (Odin and Thor make prominent return appearances here) and the "engimatic gods" about whom little is known from the lore or whose nature is unclear, but who nevertheless appear to have been important figures in Norse culture.

She concludes the book with a chapter detailing the beginning and end of the world (Ragnarok) as told in the myths, and an epilogue on the passing of the gods in favor of Christianity.


I found the book to be very helpful in understanding the northern myths and the major figures, but I also have some concerns.

For one, the book, published in 1964, appears to be outdated in some ways. Ellis Davidson takes as a given the thesis that the Aesir and Vanir existed as separate pantheons for a time before warring and being blended. However, it appears that this notion has become more controversial in the light of continuing research.

For example, Rudolf Simek of the University of Bonn, in an article published in the December 2010 newsletter of the Reconstructive Methods Network, argues that the Vanir are almost never mentioned in the oldest heathen poetry. The bulk of the information about them comes from Snorri Sturleson's Prose Edda, which must be regarded cautiously when it departs from or adds to earlier lore due to its late composition and Christian overlay.

Simek writes:

I believe that these are not Snorri‟s mistakes that we are dealing with here, but rather his deliberate creation. As a literary name in medieval [Old Norse] literature, we shall have to live with the Vanir, because Snorri has made them immortal. As an element of heathen Scandinavian religion however, we should accept the vanir as a rare collective term, but bury the Vanir as a family of gods. No Viking Age heathen Scandinavian, apart from a handful of skalds interested in arcane terminology, would have known what is meant by vanir, and even these would not have known which gods to ascribe to a group of them called Vanir.

In sum, Ellis Davidson's work provides me a great deal of insight, much of it intriguing, but some of it disturbing. I am put off by the number of these gods who seem to have demanded human sacrifice – even the presumably peaceful gods of fertility and plenty – and also dubious about the vision of the Otherworld presented. If John Michael Greer is correct in his defense of polytheism, A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism, and a person's fate after death can vary depending on the gods the person honors, I think it must be possible to do better than a choice between endless bloody battle in Valhalla, haunting one's grave mound or a shadowy fate in Hel's unpleasant domain.

Overall, I can say I recommend this book but with reservations. In particular, readers should be alerted to the issues Ellis Davidson presents as settled that subsequent scholarship has reopened.

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