19.06.20 Brink and Collinson, Theorizing Old Norse Myth

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 19.06.20

Brink, Stefan and Lisa Collinson (eds.). Theorizing Old Norse Myth. Acta Scandinavica Aberdeen Studies in the Scandinavian World. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2017. pp. viii, 264. ISBN: 978-2-503-55303-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College
cradavis@smith.edu

The papers collected in this volume were presented at a conference on "Myth and Theory in the Old Norse World" at the University of Aberdeen in 2009. The participants had been challenged to consider the following question: "What are the theoretical and methodological foundations...in our attempts to understand the Old Norse myths and mythological world, and the medieval sources in which we find expressions of these?" (1). This reviewer, a Beowulf scholar, eagerly anticipated the publication of this volume and very much appreciates the detailed scholarly assessment of primary mythological texts and ways to think about them that the contributors have offered, as well as being a bit surprised by their restraint, by the rather old-fashioned and retrospective heuristic range to which they have limited themselves. There is little acknowledgment of the many new theoretical "isms" that have so roiled critical studies in recent decades, illustrated (for instance) by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir's Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words, and Power (2013), reviewed in TMR on 17 February 2014. This study examines the agency of variously empowered female figures, both human and divine, in Old Norse tradition and their "performance" of gender, including witches, norns, sybils, valkyries, giantesses, she-trolls, shape-shifters, manly women and womanly men, cross-dressers and transgendered.

In contrast, Robert A. Segal offers a backward-looking history of scholarship on the relationship between religious story-telling and devotional practice in "Theorizing Myth and Ritual," summarizing the work of William Robertson Smith, E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer, Jane Harrison, S. H. Hooke, Theodor Gaster, Adolf Jensen, Claude Lévi-Strauss, René Girard, and Walter Burkert. Segal concludes that public religious behavior is overdetermined by multiple simultaneous motivations and social functions, often manifesting themselves independently of the mythic narratives that may inform or authorize them. Nonetheless, he reminds us that religious rites can be illuminated by considering the ways in which participants imagine themselves to be recruiting or reaffirming their relationship with the spiritual powers of the universe and by analyzing the social implications of how cosmic narratives are dramatized or invoked in public performance.

Karen Bek-Pedersen in "Myth and Theory: Where is the point?" observes that while theories are useful forensic tools when attempting to uncover the meaning of myths, no single model of interpretation is able to provide a completely satisfactory lens through which to scrutinize its subject. Traditional religious narratives are generated from complex cultural circumstances and thus remain open to multiple interpretations even to their own creators and promulgators. In addition, these collective cultural products often dramatize potent conflicts of value or rank, competing moral priorities, as well as offering inconsistent or incomplete rationalizations thereof. Myths mediate contraries, as Lévi-Strauss observed, progressively but imperfectly negotiating paradoxical impulses through time, so that Bek-Pedersen suggests a more open-ended, theoretically flexible and multidisciplinary approach to interpreting Old Norse myths, in part because early Scandinavian belief systems themselves were so decentralized, demotic and dynamically adaptive to the many different social and geographical environments to which their adherents had acculturated.

Margaret Clunies Ross considers "Old Norse Myth and Cognition," reading the extant narratives as evidence for a symbolic "metalanguage" with its own pantheon of familiar deities whose character and relationships with various other kinds of cosmic being provided a frame of reference or system of signifiers that could be used to think with, especially in rationalizing and negotiating differences between competing human groups. In particular, Clunies Ross argues that the relationship between the gods, humans, and giants in courtly Norwegian poetry configures relationships between chieftains, followers, and their political or economic competitors, and that the tense relationship between the Æsir and their giantish relatives reflects the interdependence, but potential violence between elites, subordinates, and other marginal or alien groups--the "haves" and "have-nots" of early Scandinavian society.

In "The Reintroduction of Comparative Studies as a Tool for Reconstructing Old Norse Religion," Jens Peter Schødt observes the manifest diversity of pre-Christian belief systems in Scandinavia and the Atlantic islands during the Viking Age. He argues that, while it is important to prioritize the extant textual evidence wherever possible, these sources are insufficient for reconstructing pre-Christian religion on their own, since so much information from the period has been lost. Schødt reminds us that Old Norse religion was inseparable from the social fabric of local communities, informed by customary habits of practice and belief, but at the same time improvisational and adaptive to changing circumstances. He identifies four kinds of evidence that can help us to reconstruct Old Norse religion in the absence of direct evidence for a particular region of the Viking diaspora: (1) sources from other parts of the Scandinavian world; (2) those from different time periods in the development of Germanic language and culture; (3) those from neighboring non-Germanic cultures; and (4) similarities between extant Norse myths and other Indo-European traditions.

Sebastian Cöllen considers the figure of "Heimdallr in Hyndluljóð: The Role and Function of an Enigmatic God in an Enigmatic Poem," in which Freyja solicits the wisdom of a giant sorceress Hyndla to reveal the pedigree of her protégé Óttarr so that he can claim his inheritance. Cöllen argues that the óðal"patrimony" which Óttarr desires is not merely his family's ancestral estate, but an entire kingdom for which he must demonstrate his membership in the royal lineage of gods and kings. Heimdallr is invoked as the progenitor of the three human social classes--peasants, free farmers and nobles--as well as the strict guardian of social and geographical boundaries. Cöllen believes that Hyndluljóð expresses anxiety about potential "social climbers" like Óttarr and his divine mistress, a fear figured though the Æsir's distrust of their declassé cousins, the giants, predatory bounders who presume upon their kinship with the divine nobility.

Terry Gunnell asks, "How High Was the High One? The Roles of Óðinn and Þórr in Pre-Christian Icelandic Society," evaluating evidence for the All-Father's popularity in Iceland outside of Snorri's works and those of court poets connected with Norwegian kings. Gunnell follows older scholars in concluding that the All-Father does not seem to have been worshipped much in Iceland, if at all. Instead, Þórr and Freyr are the two divinities who enjoyed widespread public veneration. Gunnell notes that in Landnámabók, "Book of Settlements," (twelfth century) Óðinn is only mentioned once, while Freyr is referred to five times and Þórr six, in addition to a plethora of personal names and place-names containing the Þórr prefix in both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, "Book of Icelanders," (also twelfth century). About 25% of personal names found in Landnámabók contain Þórr elements with Freyr instances not far behind, percentages that can also be observed in the family sagas and indeed even in modern Icelandic name-giving practice. John McKinnell notes in his "Summing Up" at the end of the volume that Gunnell might have considered Sigurður Nordal's argument that Landnámabók masks some Odinic personal and place-names behind the element Grím-, "Masked (One)" and adds that while Egill's sons in Egils saga may not have had explicitly Odinic appellations, both his father Skallagrímr, "Bald-Mask," and grandfather Kveldúlfr, "Evening Wolf," have names suggestive of that god. Gunnell concludes that Óðinn was the most important Norse divinity only to a limited number of Icelandic court poets in Norway rather than to the majority of sailors, traders, farmers, and fisherman of settlement Iceland.

In "Groups, Lists, Features: Snorri's Ásynjur," John Lindow discusses the catalogue of goddesses in Gylfaginning, "The Deluding of Gylfi," in the Prose Edda,arguing that this list of female divinities is not reflective of any "inherently bounded and semantically intact group" (131). Lindow believes that the notion of sacral female figures presiding over select spheres of influence comports more closely with the cult of the saints in medieval Christendom. Furthermore, the fourteen Ásynjur--Frigg + thirteen other goddesses, all of whom are unmarried and some of whom seem doublets of the mother goddess herself under various poetic by-names--appear to agree with Snorri's listing of fourteen male Æsir in his pantheon--Óðinn + twelve others + Loki--which list itself was quite possibly contrived in numerical imitation of the number of disciples in the Gospels, that is, Christ + twelve + Judas.

In "Cultural Memory and Old Norse Mythology in the High Middle Ages," Pernille Hermann examines the myths preserved in medieval Icelandic records according to the cultural memory theory of Jan and Eleida Assman, noting that mythological memory is a collective cultural product that inevitably reconstructs the past retrospectively. These myths are thus not merely "remembered," but rather actively reimagined by authors who find them useful for specific artistic purposes of their own, often adapting or restructuring older narratives according to the literary conventions of the particular genres or verse forms they have chosen.

In "Uppsala--Myth and Reality," Stefan Brink argues for the genuine popularity and fame of the central place of the Svíar at Old Uppsala as a pre-Christian cult site, ultimately inspiring its use as a place-name all over the Scandinavian world, including two instances in North Yorkshire. Brink observes that there are only about twenty other place-names recorded with the element sala, "drinking hall," and thus argues that the one hundred or so Uppsala/Opsalinstances are borrowed or "transferred names" rather than descriptive "autonomous names," confirming what textual sources have long suggested about Uppsala's importance in the collective imagination of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Rudolf Simek writes "On Elves," dividing his analysis into two parts, noting that differences seem to have emerged between West Germanic and Scandinavian conceptions of these beings rather early in the Middle Ages. With regard to Anglo-Saxons in Britain, who mayhave been influenced by Celtic conceptions of preternatural peoples, Simek records a number of elite personal names with the ælf, "elf," element, suggesting that there must have been a positive connotation to such entities, despite demotic use of the term in more sinister compounds like ælf-âdl, "elf-illness,"ælf-sîden "nightmare,"ælf-sogoða, "demonic possession," ælf-þone, "wizard's nightshade," and ylfig, "crazy, mad." Three instances of the adjective ælf-scyne/ælf-sciene, "beautiful as an elf," refer to seductive female charm and elves are also included in Beowulfamong the monstrous descendants of Cain. On the continent, names with the element Alb- appear among the Franks as early as 486 AD, shortly after their Christianization, possibly as a native equivalent of Greek aggelos,"angel," but Simek also notes its earlier (disputed) use in the name of a Germanic seeress Albruna in Tacitus (AD 98). Simek believes that Old English names with the Ælf/Alb element may have emulated Frankish practice, although McKinnell further suggests in his "Summing Up" that the term may simply have lost its supernatural resonance over time, as did the Þórrelement in theophoric compounds in Scandinavia. Turning to Scandinavia proper, Simek finds álfar, "elves,"in four different kinds of source: (1) a few thirteenth-century prose texts and one eleventh-century poem maintain that álfar used to be the recipients of sacrifice in heathen times (álfablót, "sacrifice to elves"); (2) two sources paint a picture of álfar as subterranean mound-dwellers who possess magical healing powers and can be influenced through rituals; (3) many Old Norse prose texts mention álfar in passing as beings resembling ghosts or demons, suggesting theycould be malignant, neutral or benign, sometimes aligned with trolls and giants, at others resembling more closely the fairy women of Arthurian romance; (4) eddic poetry seems to conceive álfar as belonging to their own distinct race of supernatural beings like the Æsir or Vanir, though perhaps in the sense of underworld deities. Simek further suspects that Christian theology inspired Snorri to divide the álfar into light and dark varieties. A rune stick from Bergen and eleventh- and twelfth-century lead amulets from Denmark and Germany inscribed in Latin offer apotropaic protection against álfar/elvos/alben as demons of disease. By the later Christian Middle Ages elves seem thus to have simplified into evil spirits alone, Simek suggests, though John McKinnell questions how seriously we should take Latin inscriptions when it comes to determining actual folk-belief since these may simply reflect the view of the clergy. Simek concludes that pre-Christian álfar served asflexible, floating signifiers whose perceived nature may have varied widely over space and time.

In his "Summing Up," John McKinnell reviews each of the essays in this volume, but begins by itemizing particular responses from Old Norse texts to the existential questions proposed by the then-oldest living man in Britain, the Reverend Reg Dean, on his 109th birthday: "Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?" (225-26) The answers McKinnell finds are: (1) "I am a descendant of Askr and Embla, who were made out of trees by the gods" (Völuspá and Gylfaginning); (2) "I am a descendant of the god Heimdallr, through one of his three sons by human women" (Völuspá and Rígsþula); (3) "I am related to the Ynglingar kings and descended from the god (Yngvi-)Freyr," a claim made by Ari Þorgilsson in Íslendingabók; (4) "I am descended from Óðinn and Skaði," a claim made for Hákon jarl in Háleygjatal by Eyvindr skáldaspillir; and (5) "I am an immortal and indestructible soul, created by the highest god and destined for reward at Gimlé or punishment in Niflhel" (Gylfaginning), a likely accommodation between traditional ideas and Christian expectations of eternal beatitude or damnation. These are all claims made by individual Icelanders and thus comprise our firmest literary evidence for personal belief.

McKinnell then proposes six more general conclusions: (1) "Theories come and go, but the evidence--literary, historical, archaeological, onomastic, and epigraphic--remains, each type of source having its own opportunities, limitations, and interpretative methods;" (2) "An important part of the interpretation of any ritual or myth is to understand clearly the meanings of the questions one is asking, and the kinds of answer that particular kinds of evidence can give;" (3) "Almost any theory may sometimes be useful, however old, but..." each approach needs to be used with appropriate caution and suggestiveness; (4) "There is no need to interpret all myths and rituals according to the same theory; theory is a set of tools, and one should use whichever one(s) seem fruitful in any particular discussion;" (5) "No theory can exhaust all possible interpretations of a ritual or myth;" and (6) "The meanings of any myth will always be at least partly intuitive, because being human, we cannot avoid being users as well as interpreters of it" (246).

These are carefully formulated reflections on the part of an experienced interpreter of Old Norse myths, one who privileges the sometimes cryptic singularity of individual sources over explanations inspired by particular theoretical prisms without dismissing their potential usefulness. More importantly for literary scholars, McKinnell reminds us that the cosmic dramas of Old Norse myth have an effect upon their recipients, including modern interpreters, that is as much moral and emotional as it is cognitive and epistemological. The Nordic peoples looked for help in this world to gods whom they conceived as having much bigger problems of their own, a mythic imaginary which has left us with a tradition of special poignancy and appeal.

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