Reviews of “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1964)

Gods & Myths of Northern Europe (Book cover)THIS survey of the Nordic pagan gods and their mythology in the Scandinavian countries derived from the literary and archaeological sources constitutes a very useful and illuminating introduction to Professor Turville-Petre’s recent volume on Myths and Religion of the North. For some time a quantity of evidence has been accumulating in this field with the rapid advance in Norse archaeological and literary studies supplementing the thirteenth century Icelandic written information of The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Saxo-Grammaticus, Adam of Bremen, Tacitus, and some unknown authors. Mrs Ellis Davidson is well equipped with her specialized knowledge of Norse and Germanic mythology to produce what is described with some justification as ‘the first popular treatment of the subject to appear in English for many years’.

Accepting Snorri as a poet, saga-writer, historian, artist, stylist and politician of a high order, his work is taken as ‘a handbook for poets and intellectuals, a guide to poetic imagery’, written in Icelandic, giving a faithful picture of the pagan mythology as he found it in his sources. These were composed for the most part in a Christian age, but no attempt was made to rationalize the material, or to give a Christian interpretation to it, though his attractive picture of Balder as a gentle young hero beloved of the gods and all in Asgard is in contrast to that in the tale of Saxo-Grammaticus where he is portrayed as a bullying, lustful warrior with on the surface, as is pointed out, ‘wide divergencies between these two accounts of Balder’s death.’ These, it is contended, may be explained by Snorri having followed traditions recorded in Iceland and Saxo those in Denmark, while ‘one or both of the compilers may have misunderstood or twisted the available sources’.

The four gods of the Viking Age, Odin the Wise, Thor god of the sky and the thunderbolt, Freyr and his sister Freyja, who brought peace, prosperity and fertility, viewed objectively by Snorri from a Christian standpoint, are reviewed and discussed in relation to the world in which they exercised their functions, having its centre in the great three-rooted Yggdrasil cosmic tree of prodigious dimensions reaching to the heavens and covering the whole earth, and uniting the regions of the universe. This world of the Northern gods is vividly described and the strength and weaknesses of the Norse mythology are clearly established. A very considerable amount of new light is thrown on these pagan deities and their cults and myths, related to daily life in the Viking Age, which cannot fail to be of absorbing interest for the folklorist. Moreover, the author has revealed ‘the myths of the past as man’s attempt to embody his intuitive ideas about the human mind and its environment, to express truths dimly perceived which have roots in his innermost being’, and thereby to ‘lead us to discover more about our spiritual heritage and perhaps to realize some of the defects in the spiritual development of the modern world’.

Source: E. O. James, Folklore, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 152-153.

Yggdrasil
The World Tree, painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge.

This new study of North Germanic mythology, which combines admirable conciseness with scholarly competence and a disciplined and straightforward style, deserves to be welcomed as a valuable addition to the paperback market. The author has the advantage of being at home in several fields: already Dr. Davidson’s first major work in this area, The Road to Hel (1943), was a convincing demonstration of the usefulness of combining literary sources with archeological evidence. Similarly her latest book successfully coordinates mythology not only with the recent findings of archeology but also with the methods of a number of other disciplines-the study of place-names and early inscriptions; the study of religion in its historical and symbolical aspects; the field of modern anthropology; and, lastly, Jung’s school of psychology. Probably because the author adheres faithfully to demonstrable evidence, she gives Eliade’s theories on the patterns of religious thought more credence than those of the Jungian school. In the light of the results of these combined efforts the plea for “generous cooperation between experts in different fields of knowledge” (p. 18) is substantiated. If there is one field that does not receive full recognition in this book, it is the study of folklore, towards which Dr. Davidson expresses an unjustifiably skeptical attitude.

The approach to the ancient Germanic myths is completely free from the major prejudices of some studies of the past. The material is always first analysed in its own right. The author refrains from the tendency to take Christian influences for granted. The temptation to explain more enigmatic phenomena as imports from foreign cultures is likewise rejected wherever there is evidence of old indigenous sources.

Not infrequently the interpretations put some puzzling items into a new perspective, e.g., when the eight-legged horse Sleipnir is explained as a dead man’s bier (p. 142). These contributions are not all original, but they reveal skill and discrimination in combining theories and sources. The view of the gods of the dead and of Valhalla is essentially in agreement with the theories put forward already in The Road to Hel. The connection between Valhalla and the burial mound is one of the intriguing aspects of both works.

If the book has a weak spot, it is the chapter on the “Enigmatic Gods.” The treatment of the Twin Gods, of Heimdall, even of Balder, leaves the impression that not all possibilities provided by recent mythological research have been exhausted.

In some cases a negative decision does not appear to be sufficiently justified. Is there really no reason to assume that Wodan was ever a wind god (p. 148)? Balder is claimed to have never been restored to life again (p. 162); but Völuspá, page 62, and Gylfaginning, Chapter 53, mention Balder’s return from Hel after Ragnarok in connection with the new fertility of the fields. The new life after the catastrophe is correctly associated with the World Tree (p. 202); but once we realize that the tree is apparently not being destroyed, we do not need to point only to Líf and Lífþrasir; there must be regenerative power in the tree itself.

The book is remarkably free from minor errors. I noticed only one inaccuracy. The original name of luppiter is not Dyaus pitar (p. 57), which is Old Indian; the early Latin form is Diespiter. The combination of its numerous merits makes this study an important introduction to pre-Christian Germanic religion.

Source: Ernst S. Dick, Western Folklore, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 147-148.

Odin by Georg von Rosen
Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen

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