Russell Poole

title.none: Ross, ed., Old Norse Myths (Russell Poole)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.012 04.12.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Russell Poole, University of Western Ontario,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Ross, Margaret Clunies, ed. Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society. Series: The Viking Collection, vol. 14. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003. Pp. 312. $41.00 87-7838-794-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.12

Ross, Margaret Clunies, ed. Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society. Series: The Viking Collection, vol. 14. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003. Pp. 312. $41.00 87-7838-794-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Russell Poole
University of Western Ontario

Most of the thirteen essays in this volume were presented in an earlier form at the Eleventh International Saga Conference on "Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society," held at the University of Sydney from 2-7 July 2000. In an introduction by the editor, Margaret Clunies Ross, the objective of the book is identified as "to show what kinds of evidence exist for Norse myth and attendant beliefs and what types of analytical methods can legitimately be applied to our sources."

The volume divides into four principal sections, of which the first is "Archaeological and Historical Perspectives." Here John Hines leads off with a discussion of "Myth and Reality: the Contribution of Archaeology." Noting that the "integrated study of archaeology and literature" is "hugely under-developed," he attempts to demonstrate its potential by tracing the expressions of "artisanal self-confidence" to be discerned in rune-stones and in the cult of tool burials. As he points out, similar expressions can be found in skaldic poetry, where such crafts as smithing, bridge-building, and in particular brewing are associated with poetic composition itself through a variety of metaphoric tropes. More controversially, Hines argues that "Voluspa" and "Rigsthula" have the primary function of addressing these same social concerns. In his "Material Metaphors--some Late Iron Age and Viking Examples," Frands Herschend argues that the practice of metaphor-building is not confined to literary texts but also provides the rationale for the specialized craft (comparable to a modern "installation") of assembling material properties and objects within a funerary ship or burial mound. Key metaphors elaborated by such materials were the grave or ship as house, death as a journey. In an imaginative and fascinating meditation on these finds, Herschend shows that the metaphor of the journey lends itself flexibly to interpretation as a variety of passages within life and death, signaling for instance the demi-god status of the occupant of the grave. Indeed, in his view, these material metaphors are superior, in terms of their inherent flexibility and suggestiveness, to the purely textual metaphors used in poetry, though perhaps further analysis of skaldic kennings might modify this extreme position. Unfortunately Herschend's exposition is somewhat obscured by insertion of what appears to be the wrong diagram on p. 53 and by incorrect analysis of a key poetic kenning (the latter discussed in a note by the editor). In a similarly far-reaching cross-disciplinary essay but this time with her focus on the traditions of the ethnically mixed Old Russian warrior elite, the so-called "retinue culture," Elena A. Melnikova is able to identify a variety of intriguing "Reminiscences of Old Norse Myths, Cults and Rituals in Old Russian Culture and Literature." Burials characteristic of this culture frequently incorporate the remains of goats; and these, in broad analogy with Herschend's material objects, permit polysemous interpretation as furnishing a funeral feast for the mourners and a combination of never-ending food supply and means of transport for the deceased. They also indicate that in Russia and perhaps more broadly in the East the god Thor had a role to play in burial cults, in keeping with the non-aristocratic social status of the Eastern Vikings. Melnikova goes on to trace a series of parallels between narratives of Rus kings on the one hand and Old Icelandic fornaldarsogur heroes on the other hand, proposing for instance that the horse in the stories of Oleg and of Orvar-Oddr originally had "mythological and cultic connotations" as an "embodiment of fate." This line of thinking could possibly be extended to the kenning-type where the gallows is referred to as some kind of horse.

In the next major section, "Magic, Death and the Other in Medieval Scandinavia," the first contributor is John Lindow, with an essay on "Cultures in Contact" that inaugurates what will be a discernible "thread" in the volume as a whole, namely contacts between Scandinavians and Sami. Taking his cue from recent studies that suggest not merely the pervasiveness but also the reciprocity of such contacts, Lindow proposes that the description of Odin in Ynglinga saga represents a piece of euhemerization, based on awareness of contemporary practices among the Sami. In this analysis, Odin's abilities with seidr, companionship with ravens, recruitment of berserks, and even power to prevent swords from "biting" would not necessarily carry implications of divine or mythic status but simply distinguish him as an aristocratic leader. While thus tracing this description of Odin to borrowing from Sami "shamanism," Lindow does however qualify this bold conclusion with the suggestion that Snorri might here have been building on older shamanistic traits in such sources as "Grimnismal." In his "Encounters with Volur," by contrast, John McKinnell takes a more skeptical view of the possible Sami connections, ascribing the identifications and characterizations of "volur" as Sami, even when they occur in Norwegian contexts, to a secondary literary tradition. Similarly, he expresses skepticism that living traditions concerning "volur" would have been available to Icelandic compilers of sagas in the thirteenth century and later. Inevitably, motif studies of the sort expounded in McKinnell's essay tend to reduce narratives to a common denominator, emphasizing the commonalities and erasing what could be genuine documentary or traditional material (a tendency that is salient in McKinnell's analysis of Saxo's handling of the "Frotho" story). Nevertheless, the careful taxonomy of narratives and the cautions against over-enthusiastic cooption of sagas into the historical and ethnographic record add up to a significant contribution. As a step in a generally similar direction, Stephen Mitchell's "Magic as Acquired Art and the Ethnographic Value of the Sagas" surveys the saga statements about the acquisition of skills in magic from the vantage-point of folktales, folklore, and even documentary records on the same subject. Mitchell notes a divide between the sagas, which tend to posit holistic passing-on of skills, and the other materials, which present purpose-driven acquisition of particular discrete skills, e.g., the formulation of love-charms or curses, suggesting caution in the use of sagas as ethnographic evidence. In his "The Un/Grateful Dead--from Baldr to Baegifotr," Vesteinn Olason deviates from the more established mode of analysis, with its mythological and religious-historical emphases, by pointing to the emotional content and possible cathartic effects for the community in stories that describe death, funerals, and the return of the dead. In this analysis Snorri's famous re-telling of the Baldr story emerges as a simplification of the inherited materials, adapted to meet the attitudes of a society that did not choose to agonize over the act of vengeance. The two contrasting images of the dead in Njals saga with Njall radiant and inert in his house and Gunnarr joyful and "singing in his howe" (as William Morris apparently described it in a letter), suggest a Bakhtinian polyphony of attitudes to the dead within medieval Icelandic culture. Gunnarr's singing is no doubt intended to inspire his associates to vengeance, yet he by no means represents the baleful and ungrateful dead of other narratives.

In the third major section, "Old Norse-Icelandic Literature as Mythography," the first contribution is from Simonetta Battista on "Interpretations of the Roman Pantheon in the Old Norse Hagiographical Sagas." Battista draws our attention to the sheer diversity of attested equations between Roman and Scandinavian deities or heroes. She shows that such equations were often not formulaic but contextually determined, depending upon which key attributes of the god were most relevant. Thus, exceptionally, Gefjun could represent Vesta as well as the more familiar Diana, while Odin could stand in for Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter as well as Mercury. In "Origin Legends and Foundation Myths in Flateyjarbok," Elizabeth Ashman Rowe detects the traces of an ideological divide within this celebrated compilation. Symptomatic are the changes to be seen in the narrative of "Fundinn Noregr" when it is re-told in a "depaganized" form as "Hversu Noregr byggdisk." Rowe's analysis, which strikes me as ingenious to the point of becoming over-schematic, sums up this dialogism as conferring upon the man who commissioned it, Jon Hakonarson, a double entitlement vis-a-vis Norway - as the descendant of a Norwegian aristocrat and as the typical Icelandic client/retainer figure. Stefanie Wurth, in "The Role of Voluspa in the Perception of Ragnarok in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature," also emphasizes the inherent flexibility and adaptability of inherited mythic material, this time as incorporated into the compilation Hauksbok. She traces the process by which the myth of the Ragnarok assembled itself, showing that although "Voluspa" provides a comprehensive historical panorama Snorri still felt the need to enlarge its scope by giving Baldr and his dream greater prominence. Evaluating the suggested motivations for the composition of "Voluspa," Wurth provides good reasons for steering clear of simplistic associations with the social turbulence of either the Christian millennium or the Sturlungaold and for adopting a much subtler interpretation of the redeemer figure of vaticinatory literature as simultaneously supportive and subversive of the established powers. In "The 'Conversion Verses' in Hallfredar saga: Authentic Voice of a Reluctant Christian?", Diana Whaley assesses a broad range of evidence to reach the entirely reasonable conclusion that the so-called "Conversion Verses" are most likely to be an authentically Hallfredr production, in keeping with patterns and trends observable from our knowledge of the conversion process. At the same time, the edition of the verses supplied by Whaley incorporates some dubious decisions, notably the retention of double alliteration in an even line, the adoption of a reading "hoefumk" that is not fully attested in the witnesses and yields unconvincing sense ("I am neutral"), and the interpretation of "fordask" as "renounce," when "evade, escape" would seem more natural.

The final section of the volume focuses upon "Myth and Ritual in Old Norse-Icelandic Traditions." Jens Peter Schjodt discusses "Myths as Sources for Rituals--Theoretical and Practical Implications," assessing the claims of various narratives to rank as evidence for actual rituals and cults. He summarily rejects Jan de Vries's claims that the Baldr narrative testifies to ancient initiation rituals and instead proposes the story of Bodvarr bjarki and of Hottr/Hjalti in Hrolfs saga kraka, pointing to liminal motifs and other elements that are characteristic of initiation rituals. Although the details of the narrative could scarcely reproduce the details of any actual ritual in an exact way, particularly in view of the late date of composition of the saga, we could cautiously assent to Schjodt's main contention, that they convey the general ethos of an initiation into a war-band of berserks or similar. In her "Two Old Icelandic Theories of Ritual," Margaret Clunies Ross similarly attempts to redress the relative neglect of the topic of ritual by pointing to the apparently systematic treatment of it in Ynglinga saga, along with the less systematic but evidently far from casual allusions in "Fundinn Noregr." She shows convincingly that in both cases ritual, as a jointly religious and political element in social practice, is being programmatically linked to an aristocratic hegemony. Such an emphasis, it might be suggested, is already foreshadowed in Snorri's source poems, "Ynglingatal" and "Haleygjatal."

To the main chapters are added a full, very helpful index and brief informative notes about the authors, both welcome features in collective volumes of this kind but too often neglected. This is an attractively produced volume, with clear fonts and good paper stock. In common with some other volumes in this series it could have used more attention to detail in respect of proof-reading, where numerous errors have escaped detection (beyond what it would be feasible for me to list here), elimination of rough patches in the translated papers, and the establishment of a consistent house style. Nonetheless, the editor and the contributors have succeeded signally in creating a collective discussion that is theoretically engaged, richly documented, and resourcefully argued, and thereby a stimulus to all scholars and students in this exciting field.