18.09.04, Ross, The Pre-Christian Religions of the North

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Ingrid Rembold

The Medieval Review 18.09.04

Ross, Margaret Clunies, ed. The Pre-Christian Religions of the North. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2018. pp. xxxiv, 637. ISBN: 978-2-503-56879-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ingrid Rembold
Hertford College, University of Oxford

This volume, like the larger project to which it pertains, is remarkable for its comprehensive vision. Its 37 chapters, totaling at 637 pages (plus introduction), span the reception of pre-Christian Scandinavian religions from contemporary (Christian) observers up to c. 1830 (a date only loosely observed, as many contributions venture into the late nineteenth century); volume II, currently available on pre-order, will extend this coverage up to the present day. Also forthcoming in this series are two volumes on Sources and four volumes on Histories and Structures, the latter of which will seek to recast the historiographical framework for pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia from first principles. This volume, the first in the series, promises much and delivers: over a millennium of historiographical reactions are comprehended; intellectual, religious, and cultural influences, delineated; and polemical uses and appropriations, contextualized, all without lapsing into teleology in this extended longue durée.

There are 22 contributors in total, several of whom contributed multiple chapters: Lise Præstgaard Andersen, Thomas A. DuBois, Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, Bo Grandien (3); Terry Gunnell, Jan Ragnar Hagland, Tatjana N. Jackson, Ármann Jakobsson, Henrik Janson, Annette Lassen (4); Sergej Liamin, Lars Lönnroth, Flemming Lundgreen-Nielsen, Bernhard Maier, Mats Malm (3); Heather O'Donoghue, Vladimir Ja. Petrukhin, Jan Retsö, Margaret Clunies Ross (8, not to mention 3 introductions and her role as the editor of this volume); Philip A. Shaw, Sarah Timme, and Julia Zernack (4). But despite the multiplicity of perspectives, a number of common approaches and recurring themes can be observed, from euheremism to the misappropriation of pre-Christian "contempt of death." Further adding to the coherence of the volume are the disciplinary backgrounds of the contributors: apart from Parts 1 and 6 ("Looking In: The Non-Scandinavian Perspective" and "The Reception in Drama and the Visual Arts from c. 1750," respectively), literary scholars predominate, a fact which should hardly surprise given the volume's strong grounding in reception studies. Indeed, the categorization of all writing on pre-Christian Scandinavian religions, from contemporary Christian alterity motifs and Rudbeckian misappropriations to modern peer-reviewed scholarship, as "reception" is equally elegant and provocative; as Ross writes in the main introduction to the volume, "[t]here is no end to the reception of this subject, only a series of transformations" (xxvi).

After a short introduction to the volume as a whole, Part I examines contemporary (largely Christian) responses to Scandinavian religions. The material is split geographically, with chapters addressing classical and early medieval (read: Western European), Anglo-Saxon, Finno-Ugric, Celtic, Rus and Arabic reception. Such geographic structuring underscores both the variety of pre-Christian religions and how reception even within the medieval period could iron over these differences. For example, as Janson observes, "Oðinn/Odin is never identified with Wodan or even as a pagan god in Continental European sources"; instead, it was first the Anglo-Saxon Æthelward, writing c. 985, who equated "the Old Norse Oðinn and the famous Woden from the long literary tradition via Bede and Paul the Deacon" (27). On the other hand, differences in genre could accentuate variances: Retsö's exploration of early Arabic authors, for example, stresses the importance of the risālah, or first-person travelogue (here especially 86), a very different, and more ostensibly neutral, form of evidence from that available in other contexts. Nevertheless, some commonalities emerge; perhaps most notably, euheremism, the rationalization of pre-Christian gods as past (human) heroes, features as a frequent conceptual framework for Christian (if not Muslim) authors.

Part II turns to (later) Scandinavian responses to pre-Christian religions. Here, a new structuring principle is adopted: the first four chapters tackle medieval Scandinavian (Christian) strategies for understanding "pagan" religions, while the succeeding four break down reception according to genre (eddic poetry, skaldic poetry and the Skáldskaparmál, historiography, and saga literature). Some themes from Part I are expanded upon. Lassen further problematizes the interpretatio Romano, the process whereby "Germanic" gods are recast as their Roman "equivalents," as addressed in the chapters of Janson and Shaw. As ever, variety is the tune of the day. While "[d]ays of the week would seem to provide a fixed set of references for such translations...there is no consistency discernable throughout"; "Oðinn is used as a translation for all the major Roman deities, Mercury, Mars, Jove, Hercules and Saturn" (106, 115). Complexity, too, gets top billing: euhemerism, as discernable in later Scandinavian reception as in contemporary Christian responses, could happily coexist with natural religious and demonic explanations for pre-Christian religions, and did, in fact, in Snorri Sturluson's writings, as argued by Ross (125). The second half of Part II, on genre, sees through this complexity. Ross' conclusion (in yet another chapter she contributes to the volume) may well be taken as a summation of these chapters. As she observes, "saga writers"--as well as authors in other genres presented here—"depicted the religious behaviour of their ancestors in a remarkably tolerant manner but developed various strategies of considerable literary complexity to present topics associated with the old gods and their cults so as to disassociate their own position, and that of their presumed audience, from the behaviour they depicted" (183).

Part 3, and the parts that follow, take medievalists (this reviewer included) out of their comfort zones, moving first to Humanism and then eventually to Romanticism and beyond. The Humanist reception, with all its state-building and confessional aspirations, highlights the ways in which the same material could be deployed to antithetical ends. While the Swedish Catholic scholar Johannes Magnus approached Protestantism, in Malm's words, as a "kind of reversion into idolatry" (193), Arngrímur Jónsson, one of his Icelandic counterparts across the confessional aisle, chose instead to render "Catholicism more or less the antithesis of Christianity," and in so doing deemphasized "the opposition heathen-Christian" (197). On the state-building side, competition between Sweden and Denmark comes to the fore: just as Johannes Bureus "claimed the runes for Sweden," "[t]he runic initiative was soon taken over by Danish scholars," in particular Ole Worm (200). Unsurprisingly, such rival agendas led to some petty animosity. "Wormius walks pregnant with great images of antiquity. / But what has he borne? Nothing but small worms!": so wrote Bureus' son-in-law in response to one of Worm's works (202).

In part 4, "From Humanism to the Romantics," state-building and confessional agendas remain, but the conversation is extended beyond Scandinavia: Montesquieu, with all his emphasis on Scandinavian liberty, features centre-stage, as do the deafening contemporary responses to Ossian's corpus. Here, as before, contradictory impulses are apparent: as Zernack writes, Scandinavian religion could be "invoked in the name of liberty even by anti-liberal factions" (263), as is seen, for example, in the French-language history of Paul Henri Mallet, written to buttress Danish absolutism (the subject of chapter 4.5). Yet a new interest was also emerging in Scandinavian religions from an aesthetic point of view, as exemplified by "the sublime," a shift in aesthetic preferences that prepares the reader for full-blown Romanticism in part 5. Here, contradictions between aesthetic and patriotic impulses are explored: as Liamin writes, "every scholar and every poet who turned his attention to the Eddas...was confronted with the specific paradox of a mythological tradition which might or should be a hypothetically related or even an apologetically native one, but was in fact completely alien to recipients exclusively involved in the symbolic system of Greek mythology and the Christian religion" (318). Yet the co-mingling of arts and politics could produce different results: while other Scandinavian countries turned to the aesthetic of the sublime, newly-independent Norway remained anchored in classicism, "Vos exemplaria Graeca being their motto" (358). Similarly, if in a different direction, "focus on the North...offered a way to allow Russia to belong to Europe while at the same time distancing it from the West, in particular from France" (396-397). Interest in the pre-Christian past was never a dominant theme, however, and these chapters take care to relativize the attention paid to Scandinavian religions. Zernack describes it as a 'fringe phenomenon' in Russia (396), while O'Donoghue, in delineating "the southward turn taken by the Romantic poets" in England, includes an apt vignette: a "scribble from Coleridge proposes 'an Idea for a Poem' and offers a few opening lines, beginning 'Scald by the northern sea in ocean Cave' but tellingly petering out on two notes: 'Genius of Italy' and the name of Boccaccio" (388). Classicism retained top billing.

This remains the case in part 6, which explores reception in drama and (primarily) the visual arts. Even the most self-conscious attempts to escape classicism reverted to classical forms, perhaps here to an even greater degree than elsewhere. Gunnell describes a play set depicting Frigga's temple, in which "the temple, with its columns modeled on Greek archaeological remains, is flanked by a couple of Egyptian sphinxes, with a few Nordic runestones standing alongside for added local color" (431); Grandien, in turn, shows how, in the famous Ragnarök-frieze, "the mounted army of Valkyries is derived from the Parthenon" (458). Perhaps as a result of such constraints--or indeed the very pervasiveness of classical models--multiple authors highlight how Scandinavian religions feature more in book illustrations, as an adjunct to written stories, than in painting or sculpture. But it is not simply the relationship with classicism that fills this (extremely well illustrated) set of chapters: politics again intercede. Nodding to a subject that will undoubtedly feature more in the second volume is Timme's contribution on painting and sculpture in Germany, in which she explores "the intensification in the exploitation of Norse mythology in conservative national contexts" (546).

The final two parts, both consisting of a single chapter, are explicitly intended as a bridge to the second volume. The first of these addresses the developments which led to the emergence of Old Norse philology as an academic discipline; the second turns to the early career of Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig, an author for whom the adjective "prolific" seems frankly insufficient: as Lundgreen-Nielsen notes, he wrote "1472 printed items of greatly varying kind, quality and size" (596). Grundtvig, who is taken as both a deeply influential and paradigmatic figure, acts as the hinge point for these volumes, the latter of which will open with a chapter on his later career. The two volumes are indeed envisaged as a whole, and as part of the larger series to which they pertain, but happily, readers who eagerly anticipate volume II will not have long to wait: it is due to be released on 28 June 2018.

My criticisms are few. While the volume boasts impressive coherence, it could nevertheless benefit from more developed scaffolding: the short introductions allotted to Parts 1 and 2 are dispensed with for Parts 3-8, and readers hoping for a dedicated conclusion will presumably have to wait for the second volume in this series. A number of conceptual decisions could have been subjected to greater problematization here. Take, for example, the almost complete absence of syncretism from discussions in Part 1--an entirely supportable decision, but one worth addressing head-on given the continued prominence of such a concept in scholarly discourse. Likewise, concepts such as "Christianity" and "conversion" (sometimes labelled by its Old Norse term, siðaskipti, roughly translated as "change in custom" [176]) are employed without definition, despite the blurred nature of these labels. Such issues, which primarily pertain to Parts 1 and 2 of the volume, will presumably be addressed in the project's forthcoming Histories and Structures volumes, but they are also salient in a volume devoted to reception, insofar as contextualization is itself a large, if more historically-inflected, part of reception studies. Other framing concepts, such as "pre-Christian religions," occur throughout--and while it can, with some justice, be argued that there is simply no better semantic alternative, the casting of certain customs and beliefs as "religious" in itself adopts an implicitly Christian outlook, the implications of which could be productively explored. Just as "the Enlightenment effects the rehabilitation of mythology even in the process of rationalistic refutation of pagan religion: by allocating it a new place as 'fables', separated from religion" (293), so too this volume implicitly claims much back for religion--a concept which pre-Christian Scandinavians may, or may not, have recognized.

These are, however, minor quibbles. This volume represents a real achievement, and scholars of pre-Christian religions, or indeed any religion, should take note. In unpacking approximately a millennium's worth of historiographical baggage--and indeed, in volume II's promise to take matters up to the present day--this book does not free us from the weight of past interpretations, but rather engenders a greater awareness of all the historically contingent factors which have influenced past reception, and which continue to influence reception (scholarly and otherwise) today. I recommend it most warmly.

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