14.10.21, Kopár, Gods and Settlers

Main Article Content

Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 14.10.21

Kopár, Lilla. Gods and Settlers: The Iconography of Norse Mythology in Anglo-Scandinavian Sculpture. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 25. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xl, 242. ISBN: 9782503528540 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

Vikings occupied broad swathes of northern and eastern England during the later ninth and early tenth centuries, creating an Anglo-Scandinavian society in this region that came to be known as the Danelaw. These settlers were traditional Germanic polytheists, worshipping a pantheon of deities primarily associated with political sovereignty and victory in battle called the Æsir in later Icelandic sources. These sources are mainly the Prose Edda of the chieftain Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) and poems collected in the thirteenth-century Poetic Edda, retelling many of the myths associated with these old divinities, including their ultimate battle against cosmic monsters at Ragnarök 'Doom of the Gods', an event of apocalyptic proportions that seems to have loomed large in the Viking imagination. This imminent cataclysm provided a temporal framework for the distinctive world-view and value system of the Vikings. It expressed an unusually dark theory of history in which even the gods to whom we look for help in this world have much bigger problems of their own, including dire mutilations and other handicaps: Odin is missing an eye; Tyr his right hand; nothing the wise and benevolent Baldr decides ever comes to pass; and even the mighty Thor is not the sharpest tool in the shed--physically intact but cognitively challenged. In addition, these damaged gods are the only divinities in world religion (known to this reviewer) who are truly mortal. Their leaders will all one day die--and stay dead. We humans can emulate their courage, but not rely on them. They are not our benefactors. We win their favor by the way we face death and failure on the field of battle, some of us earning a place by their side for the final conflict. Ordinary people--those who die of illness or old age (or foul play like Baldr)--simply go down to Hel, not a place but a person, a corpse-queen in the underworld who welcomes her guests to a grim banquet, "whose dish is Hunger and whose knife Famine," according to Snorri.

Professor Kopár describes how devotees of these Æsir found a new god in England, one who also faced death, but rose again to defeat his enemies and redeem mankind. What did this crucified god mean to the new settlers of the Danelaw? How did they understand the vicarious atonement of Christ? Within only a generation or two they gave up the ship funerals and mound burials in which they had once sent off their honored dead to an even more glorious demise in the world beyond. They found a new way to memorialize their kinsmen in the stone crosses, "hogbacks," and other grave markers that filled the churchyards of their Anglo-Saxon neighbors. The most striking of these monuments is a red sandstone cross standing 4.4 meters tall (= 14.5 feet) at St. Mary's Church in Gosforth, Cumbria. The images with which this cross is decorated reveal that people of Norse heritage in the Danelaw had by no means forgotten the old gods and heroes of their ancestors. These figures still had the power to move and inspire them, even on ecclesiastical monuments quintessentially expressive of the Christian faith.

The most dramatic juxtaposition of Christian hope and pagan doom is carved on the eastern side of the Gosforth cross. Below the cruciform headpiece is an image this reviewer has always thought of as the All-Father stepping into the wolf Fenrir's mouth, a being whose upper jaw touches the sky, its lower the earth, and his jaws would open even wider if there were room for them, says Snorri. Following other commentators, however, Kopár argues that this figure must not be Odin himself, the god having already been swallowed by Fenrir, but rather his son Vidar intent on avenging him, placing one foot in the wolf's lower jaw and his hand on the upper before tearing them asunder. This confrontation, she suggests, is intended to parallel the Crucifixion of God the Son and his victory over death depicted below. Here we find a cross-less Christ facing the viewer with his arms outstretched, grabbing the sides of a rectangular frame. Presumably the whole monument soaring above him was sufficient to signify the instrument of Christ's execution. Below this panel, facing each other, are two figures. On the left, a male, presumably the Roman soldier Longinus, pierces Christ's right side with his spear from below. Opposite him is a female figure with a braided hair-knot and Scandinavian-style smock falling from her shoulders. She holds out a horn-like vessel, looking for all the world like a valkyrie welcoming a fallen hero into Valhöll, Odin's 'Hall of the Slain', an image familiar from many pagan contexts in both poetry and the plastic arts. Kopár asks, who is this Norse female and what is she doing in a Christian scene of the Crucifixion? From similar assemblages, we would have expected the sponge-bearer Stephaton in her place opposite Longinus, or perhaps the Blessed Virgin or Mary Magdalene or even a figural representation of Ecclesia. Kopár concludes that the Scandinavian female is a representation of Hel, who has been cheated of a new "feaster" at her deathly banquet. A tangle of biting serpents beneath her feet reminds us of the "grave-fish" or snakes which infest Hel's hall, the deadliest of which is the serpent Nidhögg 'Hate-Striker', who feeds on the dead and gnaws on a root of the world-tree as a mythological embodiment of corruption and decay. In Kopár's reading, the vessel in this woman's hand is not a valkyrie's honorific horn of mead, but rather the cup of death offered by Hel to her dinner guests, possibly a cross-cultural allusion to the cup that Christ prays might pass from him in Gethsemane (Matt. 26.39, Mk. 14.36, and Lk. 22.42). Kopár suggests that the male and female figures below the Crucifixion are intended to offer two alternative pagan images of the death over which Christ triumphs in the frame above. While the unbelieving Roman marks Christ for death with his spear, the Norse Hel offers him her bitter drink in place of the vinegar mockingly tendered by Stephaton.

Such an interpretation may seem a bit elaborate, considering that the monument's first patrons and primary "readers," who once contemplated these images in the churchyard of St. Mary's, were not trained exegetes, but a bereaved second- or third-generation Norse family and its fellow mourners. For them it was perhaps simply the old gods' valor in defending their people that resonated so powerfully with Christ's willing sacrifice for humankind on the Cross, a point of moral and emotional contact between the two religions which gave the monument its commemorative force in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. In other panels, Odin's son Thor rows out to meet the Midgard serpent, while standing or mounted spearmen--perhaps doublets of Odin or his chosen heroes--confront open-mouthed monsters. Even the renegade Loki, at the bottom of the western side of the cross, endures a serpent's dripping venom while his wife Sigyn tries to protect him from its poison by catching it in her bowl. Kopár reads this image as a more general representation of "Bound Evil," comparing it to the "Bound Devil Stone" from Kirkby Stephen in Westmoreland, Cumbria, a suggestion reinforced by the knot of underworld snakes in a parallel spot on the bottom of the opposite, eastern side of the Cross just below "Hel." But the presence of the faithful Sigyn complicates, even undermines, this reading, bringing it more in line with the other images on this cross of stoic fortitude and loyal solidarity in extremis.

These images may thus not be particularly complex statements of multi-religious accommodation after all, but simply bold conflations of disparate myths for their immediate emotional impact and memorial effect. A good comparandum is the Old English alliterative poem, The Dream of the Rood, eighteen verses of which were carved in runes on a pre-Viking Northumbrian cross raised two centuries earlier at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. Here again, it is the staunch heroism of Christ on the Cross that was most impressive to a Germanic sensibility. The end of the poem, recorded in a much longer version in the later tenth century, does indeed depict Christ's subsequent deliverance of the pre-Advent just in the Harrowing of Hell and a promise to the dreamer of an everlasting feast of joy in heaven. But the actual verses carved on the Ruthwell cross evince only the painful sacrifice of Christ and of the personified cross itself, who is commanded by its Lord not to fail or quail in doing its duty. It was this "heroic moment" (xx), as Kopár calls it, that sculptors and patrons wished to invoke on these crosses. She even argues that at Gosforth the Crucifixion scene was specially intended to remind its viewers of the tradition that the All-Father, too, was wounded with a spear and hung for nine nights on the world-tree in order to gain the secret of runes, "sacrificed to Odin, myself to myself," according to the eddic poem Hávamál 'Sayings of the High One' (st. 138). This parallelism between the Norse world-tree and Cross of Christ may be intimated on the south face of the Gosforth cross in twisted branches suggestive of Yggdrasil along with one of the four harts who nibble its leaves and the contentious cosmic squirrel Ratatösk 'Gnaw-Tooth' who runs up and down its trunk bearing tales. Kopár concludes that the sum of its iconographical program reveals that the Crucifixion depicted on the east panel of the Gosforth cross is not just about Christ's sacrifice "any more," but about Odin's "at the same time, the interplay of these narratives, their distinctiveness and oneness" (xxi, author's emphasis).

It is not clear to this reviewer that the sculptor of the Gosforth cross really wanted to stress the difference between Norse and Christian traditions while simultaneously insisting on their "oneness." This cognitive paradox seems a bit abstruse or head-spinning to expect of the older Viking settlers of the Danelaw and their heirs. It is doubtful that these folks were particularly subtle or progressive multicultural exegetes. What the people who paid for this monument wanted was something that would honor the spirit of their lost loved. They could think of no better way to do so that than to cover it with the most moving images they knew. The fact that these came from antithetical traditions may simply have been beside the point of this intended effect. The images succeeded in their elegiac purpose not by clarifying their own inherent contradictions, but by overwhelming them in a passion of mournful admiration for the deceased.

Kopár divides her discussion into two roughly equal parts, the first attempting to identify various images of Norse gods and heroes on these Christian monuments with the help of other sources of information. In chapter one, she discusses the iconography of Wayland and Sigurd, two figures who proved extremely popular in both pre- and post-Viking-Age England, achieving the status of legendary icons and almost tragic heroes. Sigurd especially may have been included in funerary monuments to celebrate the dedicatee's supposed descent from this noble ancestor, a claim made, for instance, by the Anglo-Saxon earl Tostig of Northumbria. Other examples stress similarities between Christian story and Norse legend, like that in the Nunburnholme and Halton crosses, where Sigurd's slaying of Fáfnir is typologically tied to St. Michael's slaying of the dragon of the apocalypse and other Christian victories of good over evil. Kopár moves on to more clearly religious images in chapter two, "Conflicts and Adversaries of Mythical Dimensions," and finally addresses the many problematic or ambiguous examples of Norse motifs in chapter three, "Crossing Uncertain Boundaries: Pagan, Secular, or Christian?"

The second part of Kopár's study reflects more generally on questions of religious assimilation, especially notional equivalencies between competing bodies of tradition. She summarizes in chapter four what we know of religious encounters in the areas of Scandinavian settlement. In chapter five, she explains figural thinking, the medieval device of typology or historical allegory, as it was adapted from biblical exegesis, not only with reference to how persons and incidents from the Old Testament were later understood to adumbrate those of the New, but also as a technique of cross-cultural appropriation in which images from Greco-Roman or Germanic paganism could be read poetically to anticipate, allude to or confirm the superior authority of Christian scripture. And finally in chapter six, Kopár discusses "Patrons, Carvers, and Observers: The Context, Function, Production, and Reception of Anglo-Scandinavian Sculpture" from a socio-historical perspective.

These stone sculptures emerge in her analysis as potent but multivalent productions, a collaboration between sponsors, carvers, and "readers" from different faith communities or at different moments of their religious acculturation.¬ The choice of stone cross or gravestone, itself a Christian ecclesiastical art form, is itself part of this statement, a form of social display that required considerable expense, effort and expertise to create. Clearly the memorialization of the dead by associating them with divine beings was a core value Vikings shared with the Anglo-Saxons, a point of contact for deeper cultural thought and assimilation. As mentioned above, Vikings saw their gods less as supernatural resources of power in a dangerous world or guarantors of an eternal state of being in the world to come, and more as role models to be emulated by those still struggling among the vicissitudes of life and death here below. They worshipped their gods for their courage and loyalty, a continuing respect that can be seen in the many theophoric place and personal names right across the Viking world, perhaps our best evidence for a truly deep and abiding admiration for the Æsir in Norse society. This honor found special satisfaction in the new technique of funerary art learned from the Christian Anglo-Saxons--an impressive stone monument to the dead--a custom that was spreading quickly in pagan Scandinavia as well, ultimately yielding over 5,000 memorial rune-stones, especially in Sweden, the last country to convert to Christianity in the Germanic north. Professor Kopár is correct in her conclusion that some refinement of our understanding of the purpose of these monuments would be enhanced by comparison with the rune and picture stones of the Scandinavian homelands, as well as with other stone carvings in Christian Pictland, Ireland, and Wales. This functional comparison would be enriched by a deeper study of metalwork, coinage and amulets--for instance, the distribution of both Thor's hammers and Christian crosses--along with other images on hard surfaces or woven into textiles, since these media also transmitted visual motifs imitated by sculptors in stone. The key question is what particular features of traditional Scandinavian religion proved most adaptive and resilient in the new context of Anglo-Saxon England? To this reader it seems that images of courage in the face of suffering and death, whatever their origin, continued for generations to speak to the descendants of the Vikings. Professor Kopár is warmly to be thanked for her thoughtful, thorough study of these Norse stone images in Christian England.

Article Details

Author Biography

Craig R. Davis

Smith College