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21.08.31 Schjødt et al., The Pre-Christian Religions of the North

21.08.31 Schjødt et al., The Pre-Christian Religions of the North

The lands of northern Europe offer exceptionally abundant information about pre-Christian and, for the most part, pre-literate, religious beliefs, ritual practices, and symbolism. The prehistoric and early historic archaeology of Scandinavia and surrounding regions is rich and well studied. Written accounts by observers from the European continent to the south provide useful supplements to the material evidence. The myths and epics recorded in early historic times, especially in Iceland, provide wide-ranging and interconnected sources of information. This very welcome publication will be useful not only to specialists in northern Europe, but also to scholars working in other parts of the world and in a wide range of disciplines. These include the fields of archaeology, history, linguistics, folklore, religion, placename studies, medieval studies, and Germanic languages and literature. Along with comparative material from other parts of the world, the publication includes highly informative discussions of methods for the study of early societies generally.

This publication is the third in a series of four, all with the overarching title The Pre-Christian Religions of the North. The subtitle of this four-volume work is History and Structures. Volume I is titled Basic Premises and Consideration of Sources. Volume II is Social, Geographical, and Historical Contexts, and Communication between Worlds. Volume III is Conceptual Frameworks: The Cosmos and Collective Supernatural Beings. Volume IV is The Christianization Process. The stated aim of the series is to provide "an up-to-date series of handbooks and resources for researchers, teachers, and students of the medieval North" (xvii). This splendid four-volume publication certainly fulfills this aim.

The four volumes contain 69 chapters written by 28 experts. Some authors are represented once, others as many as 15 times. Some chapters are single-authored, others by multiple authors. Most chapters have abundant references to the published literature, and many have footnotes as well. Headings and sub-headings are used throughout, providing convenient guidance for the reader.

Volume I provides introductions to the topics covered in Volumes II, III, and IV. Chapter 1 presents detailed definitions of terms used throughout the publication, including the fundamental concepts "religion," "myth," and "ritual." This introduction is a useful overview informing the reader how these terms are understood and employed in the following chapters. The chapter also discusses the question of how modern scholars can hope to understand worldviews of earlier peoples. Chapters 2-10 introduce major themes of the four volumes, including memory and oral tradition, written sources, language, names, archaeology, images, folklore, geography, chronology, and linguistics. These are excellent overviews of the different kinds of information that bear on our understanding of early northern Europe, and they serve to introduce the chapters on specific topics in the later volumes. Chapters 11-18 present discussions of continuity over time and of interactions between different peoples of northern Europe.

Volume II (Chapters 19-36) includes chapters that focus on specific themes, such as law, gender, rulers, warrior bands, magic and religion, ritual space and time, rituals, death, fate, and human-deity relations. Volume III (Chapters 37-63) offers chapters on general issues of cosmology, and on specific deities and other supernatural beings in northern religion and belief systems, including familiar gods such as Odinn, Loki, and Freyja, and less familiar ones; ideas about the sun and the moon; and beliefs in giants and elves. Volume IV (Chapters 64-69) presents six chapters that address the processes of the introduction and spread of Christianity in six different regions--Denmark, Norway, the North Atlantic, Sweden, Finland, and among the Sámi.

All of the chapters are very well written and well edited, and many are well illustrated. Since our understanding of pre-Christian northern Europe depends a great deal on the material evidence of archaeology, pictures showing objects, settlement and burial sites, and reconstructions of houses, graves, and ritual places are especially important. The four volumes include a total of 297 illustrations. Among them are distribution maps of different categories of information, such as placenames and weapon deposits; photographs and drawings of personal ornaments, metal figurines, ritual objects, and rune stones; and pictures from manuscripts. From the rich selection of illustrations, the reader obtains a comprehensive idea of what the world of pre-Christian northern Europe looked like, in terms of the built landscapes, monuments, and material culture among which people lived. Most of the illustrations are of high quality.

I shall comment here on a selection of the chapters as examples of the rich contents of the volumes. Chapter 7, "Images," contains a thorough discussion of representations in a variety of media, including stone, bronze, gold, and textile, dating from the Bronze Age to the Viking Period, illustrated with excellent photographs, drawings, and charts. Topics include figural rock engravings, Gotland picture stones, bronze and gold ornaments, and church carvings. For ways that folklore can contribute to our understanding of the pre-Christian period, Chapter 8, "Folklore," is an excellent introduction. Chapter 11, "Continuity and Break: Indo-European," considers the complex connections between archaeology and language and how both relate to religion and myth. Chapter 13, "Encounters: Roman," concerns interactions between the peoples of Scandinavia, whom the Roman armies never conquered, and the Roman Empire. A great many Roman imports have been recovered on archaeological sites. Illustrations include photographs of the grave goods, both Roman and local, from the important burial at Hoby in Denmark; a Latin-inscribed stone from Nijmegen in the Netherlands; and bronze figurines of Roman deities recovered in Denmark. Roman writers such as Tacitus contribute significant outsiders' views about the northern regions of the continent.

"Magic and Religion" is the subject of Chapter 26, with valuable discussion of all aspects of what is understood as "magic" in its relation to religious beliefs and practices of northern Europe. Illustrations include amulets with runic inscriptions and the plan of a house at Vallhagar on Gotland in which ritual deposits were found. For places at which religious rituals were performed, Chapter 27, "Ritual Space" is an up-to-date overview, with both general discussion and focus on specific places that have been studied archaeologically. The text of this chapter is accompanied by 26 illustrations, which include photographs of ritual sites and objects, as well as plans showing locations at which such objects were found by archaeologists. For treatment of the dead, Chapter 33, "Death Ritual and Mortuary Behavior," provides a fine overview of both literary sources and archaeological evidence, along with photographs of burial sites and reconstructions of excavated graves. For discussion of how the peoples of early Scandinavia viewed themselves in relation to the larger world, Chapter 38, "Cosmology," treats connections between myths and the material evidence of archaeology. Finally, Chapters 40-63 draw on a variety of sources of information to examine in detail the characters of specific gods and other supernatural beings. These chapters are accompanied by numerous illustrations of objects that are linked to the deities discussed.

I envision three main audiences for this publication. First, the chapters include excellent, up-to-date, overviews of the topics they cover, thus providing scholars and students with a quick way to get a summary of current knowledge about all of the topics covered. Both the bibliography (256 pages) and the index (106 pages) are well organized and presented. Second, for students, undergraduate and graduate, working on papers and dissertations, the chapters will be invaluable sources of information and direction. Third, because the chapters are so well written and, in many cases, well illustrated, they can be a pleasure to read and could be happily browsed by anyone with an interest in northern Europe's past, and in the study of pre-literate societies generally.

This publication is an excellent resource and will be a valuable reference work for many years to come.