Reviews of Pagan Scandinavia by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1967)

Review by: E. O. James, Folklore, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring, 1968), pp. 71-72.

Pagan Scandinavia (1967)CONSIDERING the significance and importance of Scandinavian prehistoric archaeology and Northern antiquities the literature on the subject is surprisingly meagre compared with that devoted to other contemporary cultures. Therefore, this concise, very well informed and comprehensive survey of the religious symbolism in pagan times is very welcome and opportune, alike for workers in this field and for readers anxious to become better acquainted with the archaeology of Denmark, Norway and Sweden from Palaeolithic times to the last phase after the introduction of Christianity into the region. Account also has been taken of parallel rites, practices and beliefs in prehistoric communities widely dispersed and in preliterate society still surviving under similar conditions. Throughout the inquiry an effort has been made to determine the pattern of religious development which has become a constant feature in Scandinavia and in other parts of the protohistoric world.

Very little is known about Palaeolithic man in the Northern cultures, if, indeed, he penetrated to these climes under glacial conditions before the ice finally melted away in the Mesolithic and the Early Neolithic. Then a few hunting carvings on rocks, and sculptures, bone combs and other artefacts began to appear, with possible indications of shamanism, dancing phallic figures, fertility symbols and perhaps the release of the soul after death. It was, however, with the introduction of agriculture that megalithic dolmens, or dyss, composed of a small stone-lined chamber covered by a capstone became abundant, especially in Denmark, and to a less extent in Sweden, about 2000 B.C., reaching their climax in passage graves used for many generations of burial. The Battle-axe folk often interred their dead in low earth mounds with single graves, sometimes one upon another, and surrounded by stone circles and equipped with small votive offerings. In the early Bronze Age weapons became prominent in the cairns and the barrows with new funeral rites, cremation beginning to be practised in association with the worship of a Sky- god and its symbolism, including designs of boats, the prototype possibly of the great ship-burials in the Viking Age, which of course attained its most spectacular proportions at Sutton Hoo and the associated examples in this country, apparently of Scandinavian origin and influence.

Axe Wielding figure at the center of a boat ceremony at Tanum, Bohuslan, Sweden.
Petroglyph at Tanum, Böhuslan, Sweden

In the Iron Age the Celtic warrior cults were the principal element in the Danish peat bogs with emphasis on sacrifice for victory and subsequent banquets in the halls of the gods after death. The horse as the victim was a new appearance in the scenes and its bones on the sites, with dancing warriors depicted as following in  fighting. In the Viking period, however, in spite of the various ways of disposing of the dead that were adopted, and apart from ship-burial with their elaborate equipment and crew of warriors, sepulture and the grave-goods were relatively simple.

Gotland Runic Inscription 110 (Tjängvide)
Gotland Runic Inscription 110 (Tjängvide)

About the eighth century A.D., however, as on earlier Etruscan and Roman tombstones, the reception of a hero in Valhalla met by Valkyries, as described in Norwegian poetry, is suggested by the scenes on the memorial stones in Gotland; and in Roman and Christian times crosses with the triumph of Christ over the forces of evil and darkness were combined with scenes from the story of the hero, Sigurd the Volsung. Some of the dancing groups have been regarded as representations of Wodan or Odin, but this is most unlikely, as is rightly maintained, the eagle being his symbol as the Germanic god of death guiding the warrior’s spear in battle in the Vendel periods in Sweden. In the Viking Age he was replaced by Thor as the Sky-god and upholder of the established order, with the swastika as his symbol, together with the hammer, ring and axe.

These pagan cults were so deeply laid in Scandinavia that they survived for a considerable time after they had been modified by Christianity at the end of the first millennium when the indigenous gods and the Germanic heroic poetry and its mythology and symbolism were renunciated, paganism by no means came to an end. On the contrary, the Norse cults lingered on, particularly in the former temples and holy places, on the sites of some of which churches were erected and ancient runic inscriptions preserved. The house of the gods, however, as is explained, remained a serious rival to the Christian edifices erected in their stead, but notwithstanding the persistence of the ancient symbols and themes, the old faith of the early hunters, farmers and their successors in the Bronze Age was now over forever. This valuable record of its long history and contents, with excellent photographs and line drawings, is and will remain a notable contribution to our archaeological knowledge of religious symbolism in Pagan Scandinavia. E. O. JAMES

Valheim Hof in Denmark
Valheim Hof in Denmark. The “first” Danish temple dedicated to Odin in 1000 years.

Review by: Carl-Axel Moberg, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Jun., 1969), pp. 561-562

In Pagan Scandinavia, H.R. Ellis Davidson tells us she has “tried to summarize the results of archaeological findings in the light of what can be learned from the evidence of written sources, and … also taken into account the contribution from a third discipline, the history of religions.” The fulfilment of this program requires knowledge and judgment of both archeological evidence and written sources. The author of this “tentative beginning to the history of religious symbolism in the Scandinavian North” has been well prepared. She knows much of the standard Scandinavian archeological literature. Obviously, Continental and German works (not the least of which are those by Pater Schmidt) have been considered more important than anthropologically oriented Anglo-American archeology. The program has the basic difficulty that one often encounters in studying the archaeological material from a certain area and period: either the contemporary written sources are from another area, or written sources concerning the actual area are from a different epoch. This tempts the student to try unduly to bring the two source groups together. Mrs. Davidson has resisted this temptation better than, for instance, Dumezil or Ohlmarks.

Rock Art Scandinavia
Litsleby: The rock of the Spear God. 

It is with the Bronze Age that the author recognizes “the advent of the gods,” made visible, or invisible, represented by symbols (Bertil Almgren). A student of rock art might find it interesting to compare the views in Pagan Scandinavia with the somewhat different interpretation offered by Anders Hagen in the volume on Norway in the same series. A number of especially interesting pages are devoted to the Migration Period gold horns from Gallehus and to comparisons between the Manx crosses and evidence in Scandinavia. If Mrs. Davidson does not exactly break new ground, she provides valuable suggestions.

The author asserts that “Nerman’s theory that the three largest burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala hold the remains of three early kings of Sweden, remembered in Beowulf and Ynglinga Saga” is generally accepted. Probably she got this impression from archeological publications. Even there, acceptance is not complete. But more important is that this and related protohistorical problems are debated among historians. And the Ynglinga Saga can have no primary source importance at all for this question.

Royal_mounds (Gamla Uppsala)
The three large “royal mounds” at Gamla Uppsala.

Minor mistakes are inevitable in a book of this kind. Two of them ought to be mentioned. There are not 200 rock figures at Nimforsen, but 1400. Simrislund, with the well-known rock picture of the axe-bearer (Fig. 8) is not at Tanum, Bohuslkin, on the west coast, but in Scania, in southernmost Sweden. Misspellings of our difficult place- names, etc., are more frequent than usual (so far, the reviewer has noted some 40). It does not matter–except when the reader has trouble in trying to identify them elsewhere. Certainly, the author is not responsible for the climax of spelling vandalism reached in the cover text, where the epoch called “Vendel period” (after the site of Vendel) appears as the “Vandal period.”

9678544Scandinavians will likely prefer to use Folke Ström’s Nordisk hedendom (second edition 1967; this work is not among those in the select bibliography of the reviewed book). But they ought to appreciate Mrs. Davidson’s contribution, and now at least international readers have a useful introduction to a difficult and controversial field.


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