Reviews of “The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age” by Peter Gelling, Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Review by: Jacqueline Simpson, Folklore, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Summer, 1970), pp. 152-153.

The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze AgeTHE aim of this book, which will prove indispensable to students of ancient European religions, is to analyse the meanings of Scandinavian rock-engravings in the Bronze Age (roughly between 1500 and 500 B.C.), and to trace the subsequent history of religious symbols established in this period as they appear in Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and later Scandinavian art and literature, and in certain folk-customs. The rock- engravings contain a rich and fascinating repertoire of recurrent motifs, lucidly described and interpreted by Mr Gelling; the material from later periods is discussed by Dr Davidson in the final section of the book. It is astonishing that so important a corpus of material should have remained virtually unknown in England for so long; this stimulating book will undoubtedly enlarge our understanding of our cultural heritage.

Mr Gelling’s basic premise is that the majority of the engravings represent real-life ritual acts and actual cult-objects which the artist had seen used in religious ceremonies, and that their purpose was to make a permanent record of the fact that the ceremony had taken place- hence the constant repetition of motifs. Only when a figure shows quite exceptional peculiarities of size or attitude will he consider the possibility of direct representation of a supernatural being. He argues that the main ceremony was a spring festival in which a ship (symbolizing the mythical vessel in which the sun returns from west to east every night) arrived bearing some image representing the sun-god-a large disk on a stand, an outsize axe, or even a pair of footprints.

Lur-blowers (rock-carving), Kalleby in Bohuslän, west Sweden.

Men celebrated its coming by dancing, turning somersaults, leaping from ship to ship, waving axes, playing lurs, or consummating a ritual marriage. Other rituals recorded were performed on land: the worshipping or carrying about of sun-disks, huge axes, and spears; dances, mock com- bats, and processions with gigantic human effigies; sexual acts with animals; bull-leaping; ritual ploughing; there is even a sturdy maypole, with men swinging round it on ropes. Moreover, the participants often wear animal skins, with heads and tails; some clearly have bulls’ or goats’ horns, others stubby projections which may indicate horses’ ears, while others wear wings and bird-masks.

Though sun-worship is the main theme of the engravings, there are also signs of a separate cult of a war-god with a spear; the sword and the boar are already connected with fertility, and the axe with the sky. Thus certain facets of Odin, Freyr and Thor may be already foreshadowed in the Bronze Age. Mr Gelling makes some stimulating suggestions about the development of these and other symbols, and Dr Davidson pursues the matter further with a wealth of evidence from later periods, tracing their shifts of meaning, transference to other contexts, and rise and fall in popularity through many centuries. It is impossible to do justice here to all the issues raised by this book, which will surely stimulate much fruitful discussion. In the last few years our understanding of Celtic and Germanic Iron Age religion has been much enriched; now that this important Bronze Age material has been so ably presented, we are better placed to assess the contribution of the North to the history of European religion. 


Review by: Stephen L. Dyson, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 5 (Oct., 1970), pp. 1180-1181.

Rock engravings are very fascinating and frustrating “artifacts” for the anthropologist and archeologist. They are among the most impressive remains of prehistoric man, but they are not usually found in close connection with other cultural material. This makes them difficult to date and interpret. The present work is an attempt to provide a systematic interpretation of the iconographic and religious meaning of a large body of rock carvings found in Scandinavia. The results are of varied usefulness and credibility.

Gelling wrote the first section, which deals with the Scandinavian carvings as evidence for prehistoric religious activity. He divides them into basic thematic categories and discusses the representations and their variations within each category. These include such forms as ships, sun disks, weapons, and sacred marriages. This part of the method is sound and allows us to appreciate the wide distribution of certain religious ideas in Scandinavia. These discussions are accompanied by numerous line drawings and a few plates (which are not numbered). The drawings are useful, but the reviewer would have liked more plates. The almost exclusive use of drawings leaves the reader at the mercy of the author’s interpretation of what is in the rock carvings.

Danish Bronze AgeIn addition to discussing the content of the carvings, the author also tries to relate them to the larger field of European prehistoric religion. Here my reservations begin. The methodology is sloppy and may be misleading, especially to the amateur in European archeology who uses this book as an “authoritative source.” Frequent examples are drawn from the classical and preclassical Mediterranean, often with flimsiest cultural and chronological relationships. A typical example is the connection of certain axe and horn motifs found in the rock carvings with the horns of consecration and the Haghia Triada sarcophagus of Minoan Crete. Such interconnections over long distances would seem to require substantial proof. However, the author fudges chronological problems as well as those of trade connection and falls back on old arguments against independent invention. Many of his examples recall the methods of Elliot Smith and Sir James Frazer and reflect the disturbing tendency of many European prehistorians to move cultural traits across continents with little thought to underlying social divisions and developments. Gelling might better have spent his time discussing in a clearer and more complete fashion the nature of Neolithic and Bronze Age society in Scandinavia as it can be reconstructed from archeological evidence. Archeological material is used, but not in sufficiently comprehensive fashion to allow us to perceive how the religious expressions seen on the rock carvings might have derived from the customs of a society. I agree with Gelling (p. 7) that the prehistorian must pay more attention to religion. However, if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided, prehistoric religion must be approached with a rigorous methodology that reflects the best of modern anthropological and archeological thought on the subject. One can sympathize with the author’s frustration in having so little internal evidence, but we must regret his efforts to pursue dubious parallels across subcontinents. Sometimes restraint is better than misplaced enthusiasm.

The second part of the book, by Davidson, deals with the continuance of Bronze Age religious symbolism into later Scandinavian paganism. Here the evidence is fuller and the author can keep within similar cultural traditions. The result is a more convincing series of parallels.

Altogether, this is a book that is useful if read with a certain caution. The authors are better versed in Scandinavian archeology and folklore than in modern anthropology. Still, there is much useful information on an unusual form of primitive artistic and religious expression.

Bronze Age Sun Worship

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