14.05.01, Murphy, Tree of Salvation

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Kevin J. Wanner

The Medieval Review 14.05.01

Murphy, S.J., G. Ronald. Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 239. ISBN: 9780199948611.

Reviewed by:
Kevin J. Wanner
Western Michigan University

G. Ronald Murphy's Tree of Salvation aims to show how the tree Yggdrasil, an element of Norse mythic cosmology known from viking age and medieval textual sources as well as represented, with more or less certainty, on a wide array of artifacts dating from long before to well after the christianization of "the Anglo-Scandinavian-Germanic North" (2), proved able to weather conversion with much of its form and meaning intact, owing to resonances between its symbolism in indigenous religious thinking and what the new religion promised. More concisely, the book argues that Yggdrasil was understood by Germanic heathens in ways significantly similar to how Jesus's cross has been by Christians, as a tree that offers salvation and upon which the world's fate literally hangs. The Germanic tree's salvific role is most evident in what Murphy calls "the most amazing part of [its] story" (10), which begins with Ragnarok, the "doom of the gods." In Murphy's words, "Yggdrasil, seeing and feeling the destruction of the whole world which the tree supports and protects, will open to the last man and woman, or boy and girl, Lif and Lifthrasir, to...provide protection for them throughout the end of the world..., and will give them the dew of the morning to keep them alive" until a new world arises for them to people (10). Based on this perceived correspondence between Yggdrasil and the cross, and on the conviction that christianized Germans would have recognized and taken advantage of this correspondence, Murphy seeks to show how select "great cultural monuments...express...northerners' realization of the rescuing function of Christ's cross in terms of the story of the evergreen Yggdrasil" (4).

Following an introductory chapter, the book falls into three parts: "In Wood and Stone" has three chapters presenting conclusions based largely upon Murphy's firsthand examinations of what he regards as Yggdrasil imagery found in stave and stone churches and stone monuments in Scandinavia and the British Isles; the two chapters of "In Poetry and Runes" focus respectively on The Dream of the Rood, an Anglo-Saxon poem analyzed mainly based on its text as found on the Ruthwell cross, a Northumbrian artifact from ca. 700-750 AD, and the "Elder Fuþark," a runic script in use from around the second century AD; finally, "In Yuletide Carol and Evergreens," contains one chapter that seeks to show how Yggdrasil continues to this day to be an active syncretic element of Christmas.

This book's most attractive and useful feature are its many photographs and illustrations. Many of the photographs were taken by the author on visits to churches and monuments. While none are in color, they highlight and clearly show the architectural and decorative features that Murphy uses to argue that Yggdrasil imagery is both common and prominent in these contexts. Ample illustrations of runic inscriptions, bracteates, altar cloths, and other artifacts are also included; some are new sketches of familiar objects rendered by Laurence Selim so as to "enhanc[e] the[ir] definition for the reader," a goal at which she succeeds admirably (xi).

Unfortunately, Tree of Salvation cannot be praised similarly in other matters of presentation. The book has been very carelessly edited. Typos such as mistakenly repeated words or phrases (e.g., "Nidhogg that the devours the corpses of the dead" on p. 12, or "was foretold by the story of the rescue of the rescue of Lif and Lifthrasir" on p. 132) appear frequently enough to be distracting, and the formatting of sources' titles is inconsistent, with italics and diacritics coming and going without pattern. For example, Edda is only sometimes italicized (and, oddly, "Edda" is at least twice, on pp. 11 and 148, used as a plural form), and the name of an eddic poem is written variously as Voluspa (11), Voluspá (147), and Völuspá (166; this last form is how it appears in the index, though not all page number references here are correct: for example, Voluspa appears on p. 52, not 51). Proper names are misspelled, e.g., "Upsala" for Uppsala (207), or when Vafthrudnir (as Vafþrúðnir is anglicized in the translations that Murphy uses) appears as "Vaftthrudnir" (10) and "Vafthrudnis" (97; here, the index is once again mistaken, since it does not indicate that this name appears on p. 10, but does list it as being on p. 51, though it is no more found here than is Völuspá). Yet more confusion is introduced by the index having separate entries for Vafthrudnir and Vafthrudnis, despite the latter being simply the anglicized version of the name with the indigenous genitive ending (in Old Norse, Vafþrúðnir versus Vafþrúðnis). The fact that there are also separate entries for Vafthrudnismal and Vaftthrudnir's [sic] Sayings suggests that Murphy does not realize that the latter name simply translates the former. Such confusion is troubling given that a datum from this poem is the foundation for much of the book's argument.

Things get worse when it comes to citations. Given the pains to which I and others go to impress upon students the importance of citing others' work accurate and consistently, it is disheartening to see such matters treated so desultorily by a venerable academic press. There is no space to list and give examples of all of the problems with citations I noted, but the following are among the most common and/or grievous. First, some quotations are inaccurate (for example, Hoddmimir is misspelled in a quotation from p. 47 of Larrington's translation of The Poetic Edda in footnote 7 on p. 10, and a quotation from p. 17 of Faulkes's Edda translation on p. 28 has "center" rather than "centre," omits "must," and mistakenly capitalizes "high"). Second, citations of journal articles are formatted inconsistently: roman and arabic numerals are variously used for volume numbers, and only sometimes are these preceded by "no."; full page ranges are usually given, but sometimes just a single page is listed, or "ff." is used; and some articles are cited as if they were book chapters (for examples, compare entries for Agrell, Berg, Crossland and Hayes, Lang, Looijenga, and Wilson 1967). There also mistakes in citations, as when Judith Jesch appears as "Jessica" (221). In many cases, multiple references to the same work do not match: for example, Runes and their Secrets edited by Marie Stocklund on p. 223 becomes Runes and Their Secrets edited by Marie Stoklund on p. 224 (the former spelling is correct), while Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions, with a publication date of 2007 on p. 222, becomes Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives, Origins, Changes, Interactions, with a publication date of 2006 on p. 223 (neither title is correct, but 2006 is the correct date). A work by Henning Kure appears twice in the bibliography, mistakenly at the bottom of p. 221, and then in its proper alphabetic location on p. 222. In neither place are the essay's page numbers given, and in footnote 16 on p. 19, the title is incorrectly written as "Hanging in the world tree," rather than as "Hanging on the World Tree." In fairness, it can at least be said that Murphy and OUP show no more concern for consistency when citing their own prior collaboration: compare how Murphy's The Heliand, the Saxon Gospel, or The Heliand, The Saxon Gospel, is cited in footnote 17 on p. 20 versus footnote 3 on p. 26.

To move on to the book's substance, while many of Murphy's interpretations of churches and artifacts are suggestive and often ingenious, they rest (pardon the pun) upon an awfully slender bough owing to questionable use of the textual sources. Murphy seems reliant on translations of Icelandic texts such as Snorri Sturluson's Edda (compiled c. 1220) and what is commonly called the Poetic Edda (compiled c. 1275, but containing poems dating back to perhaps the ninth century), yet he often prefers paraphrase to quotation, with the result that he sometimes misreads or distorts the texts, or at least goes beyond what they say and thus can support. For example, he writes that "Yggdrasil, according to the Edda,... stands in the middle of the universe. It is the axis of the world, the world tree that holds up the skies, and the tree of life…On top of the tree sits an eagle with a hawk on its brow; the eagle beats its wings and produces the winds of the world" (5-6). Here is the passage from Faulkes's translation of the Edda that most aligns with Murphy's description: " 'Where is the chief centre or holy place of the gods?'...'The ash [Yggdrasil] is of all trees the biggest and best. Its branches spread out over all the world and extend across the sky'...'There is an eagle sits in the branches of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things.'" [1] At least three discrepancies can here be noted: first, to say that Yggdrasil is the "chief centre" of the gods does not mean that it ought be regarded as an axis mundi; second, nowhere here, or elsewhere that I recall, is Yggdrasil called a "tree of life"; and, third, the eagle atop Yggdrasil is not the giant in eagle's form, named Hræsvelg, whose wings generate the winds, particularly since the latter is said in the Edda to sit not at the center but "[a]t the northernmost end of heaven." [2] Murphy also mistakenly suggests that the Edda refers to Odin's self-sacrifice on Yggdrasil to gain runes (173); Snorri knew the poem, Hávamál, where this notion appears, but makes no reference to it.

More damaging to Murphy's overall case are the unwarranted claims he makes for the centrality of the myth of Lif and Lifthrasir in pre-Christian and post-conversion northern culture. Murphy describes this myth as "the Germanic story of ultimate salvation,...a story tradition long known and familiar in Norse and Germanic society" (29). What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that the sole extant textual and (perhaps) pre-Christian source for Lif and Lifthrasir are two contiguous verses of eddic poetry, namely Vafþrúðnismál stanzas 44 and 45, which, as translated by Carolyne Larrington, partly read: " 'which among men will live when the famous Mighty Winter comes...?'...'Life and Lifthrasir, and they will hide in Hoddmimir's wood; they will have the morning dew for food; from them the generations will spring." [3] As for Christian texts, our only source is Snorri's Edda, which quotes Vafþrúðnismál stanza 45 and restates its content thus: "in a place called Hoddmimir's holt two people will lie hid during Surt's fire called Lif and Leifthrasir, and their food will be the dews of morning. And from these people there will be descended such a great progeny that all the world will be inhabited." [4] There is no evidence that Snorri had other sources for this passage, and his brief reference to Lif and Lifthrasir is not picked up on by subsequent medieval authors. What is more, while modern scholars have long identified Hoddmimir's wood with Yggdrasil, Snorri seems not to have done so. Indeed, the phrase "in a place called Hoddmimir's holt" suggests a lack of interest in nailing down its identity or location. Thus, our only piece of evidence for how an actual Christian Norse person (and not just any person, but the period's unrivaled expert in heathen mythology) interpreted the myth of Lif and Lifthrasir fails to support--and can even be taken to argue against--the claim that Yggdrasil was widely thought to have sheltered this couple through Ragnarok. Without such a narrow textual foundation upon which to rest, Murphy's contentions that this or that piece of Christian architecture, decoration, or ritual paraphernalia attests to a consciously syncretic repurposing of the myth of Lif and Lifthrasir--interpretations which are often already strained, given his propensity to take the presence of any topiary motifs or hollow spaces as verifications of his thesis--become even more speculative and difficult to assess.

Finally, it is worth commenting on Tree of Salvation's overall celebratory treatment of its topic. Much of the book's analysis consists of imaginative reconstructions of what people were thinking as they made or made use of various syncretic artifacts and settings. For example, Murphy suggests that a "twelfth-century altar tapestry from the church at Skog" in Sweden depicts the gods "Woden, Thor, and Frey or Freya" at the moment of conversion exiting the scene "peacefully, and quite contentedly,...because they are leaving Yggdrasil's temple in the hands of Christians and Christ, for whom they prepared the way...by helping all to remember...that salvation would come in the form of a tree. It did. And then they left, graciously leaving their stave house to Christ" (62, 64-5). The cumulative effect of such passages, which appear at the end of most chapters, is a relentlessly irenic account of conversion and its aftermath that stresses the ease with which syncretic harmony was achieved between old and new salvific symbols and promises, but which also affirms that the triumphant religion completes and perfects what came before. In short, Murphy's analysis seems designed to demonstrate that, in the Germanic case, the accommodationist Catholic missionary principle of adopting and repurposing select elements of a target culture worked like a charm. Murphy at points acknowledges that this is what he is doing, and also seems to endorse such strategies of conversion; at least, he notes that they have good biblical and papal warrant (see, e.g., his approving quotations of Hebrews, Acts of the Apostles, and Pope Gregory I on pp. v, 32-3, and 192). Moreover, in the book's conclusion, he goes beyond description and approval to make a positive contribution to sustaining a Germanically-tinged Christianity. After reassuring readers that they need feel no anxiety about survivals of heathen symbolism in Christian ritual (191-2), Murphy suggests how they might get the most syncretic mileage out of their Christmas trees: he advises that they set the obligatory miniature manger scene back against its trunk, where "the littlest members of the family" might, while crawling around beneath the tree, "find the child and his mother. At the very spot where, it is said, when the death of the world is over, God's tree will open its trunk, and out will come the life that was rescued ...--Life and Lifthrasir." With these names the evergreen tree foretells the coming of the infant Jesus and the presence of Mary, it trembles, and ever smiles at Jesus held in a wooden crib" (218). Thus this book, after spending much of its length repackaging a preferred insider account of a syncretic project, ends by participating in it. It is dubious, I submit, whether either undertaking contributes to scholarship.



1. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 17-18.

2. Ibid., 20.

3. The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 47.

4. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Faulkes, 57.

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Author Biography

Kevin J. Wanner

Western Michigan University