Scandinavian Mythology: Introduction by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: Viking and Norse Mythology, pp. 6-15

Viking and Norse MythologyWe tend to think of Scandinavian mythology as the beliefs of the Vikings, those tough adventurers who were the scourge of Christian lands in the ninth and tenth centuries, whose ships sailed all the seas of the known world, and who left traces of their activities from Greenland to the Volga, and from the Mediterranean to the North American seaboard. The splendid literature which survives from the Middle Ages, written down in monasteries after the conversion to Christianity of the North, gives a vivid picture of their kings and adventurers and the early settlers of Iceland. The stories of their gods and giants and legendary heroes deserve to be more widely known. Their strength and imaginative power, humour, clear-sightedness and sombre magnificence surely merit a place for them beside the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, on which we have long brought up our children.

The Religion of the North

The mythology of the North, however, goes back long before the Vikings. Its beginnings may be seen in the Scandinavian Bronze Age, which lasted for over a thousand years, from about 1600 to 450 B.C. In this period enormous advances in arts and craftsmanship were made in the Scandinavian lands, as is shown by the fine works in metal and stone which have survived into our own time. It is in the Bronze Age that for the first time we discern recognisable figures of gods and goddesses, and catch glimpses of myth and ritual, although no written sources survive to tell us what language the worshippers spoke. Then after an obscure period about which archaeology can tell us little came a second epoch rich in religious symbolism, the time of transition when western Europe was in ferment. This period, generally known as the Migration period, lasted from about the third to the sixth centuries A.D. It was the time of the disruption of the Roman Empire, when the Celtic and Germanic peoples were moving westwards and northwards, bringing with them new religious cults and symbols, and fresh viewpoints on the gods. It was then that the cult of Wodan or Odin, the fierce god of death and battle, inspiration and magic lore, flourished in the North. Still we have no written sources, other than brief runic inscriptions, but we have a number of accounts by Greek and Latin writers, and one invaluable book written by the Roman historian Tacitus at the end of the first century A.D. He was sufficiently impressed by what he learned concerning the Germanic peoples on the borders of the Empire to write an account of their way of life. The evidence of archaeology and heroic poetry indicate that this way of life continued during the Migration period much as he described it.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 7
Rock carving of the Bronze Age from Bohuslän, Sweden, showing a stag, a man with an axe, and three male figures with staffs and perhaps wearing animal masks, leaping over or sitting on what seem to be sun discs.

The Germans lived in small warrior tribes under aristocratic leaders, sometimes following them to new kingdoms in search of adventure and plunder and lands on which to settle. They were proud of their oral traditions about the kings and heroes of the past; they held high ideals of courage in battle and loyalty to their leaders and to their kindred; they respected and honoured their womenfolk; and they valued traditional laws which were believed to have been established by the gods they worshipped. Their outstanding deities ruled the battlefield and extorted heavy sacrifices from their worshippers, gave them good seasons, rich crops and prosperity, and had power over the realm of the sky, the thunder and the life-bringing rain. They were very conscious also of the grim underworld where the giants and monsters dwelt, and of the constant threat to their precarious little world once the forces of chaos were unleashed. Their experience of a savage world in which kingdoms were constantly set up and destroyed, with a background of stormy seas and long cold winter nights, gave a sombre tinge to their picture of the realm of the gods, but at the same time it imparted a sturdy vigour to the figures who people their myths.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 8
Outline of a bear in silhouette on a rock at Finnhägen in Nordland, Norway.

At the end of the Migration period small settled kingdoms were established in Scandinavia and Britain, one of the most impressive being that of the Uppland kings of Sweden, whose burial place was a centre of sanctity in the seventh century. The Anglo-Saxons were converted early to Christianity, as were the continental Germans. But in Scandinavia paganism lived on for several centuries, and received a new impetus in the vigorous period of adventure and conquest known as the Viking Age. as the Scandinavians ventured further afield in the ninth and tenth centuries in search of trade, adventure, piracy or new homelands for the younger sons and the dispossessed, they carried the cults of their heathen gods with them, but at the same time they came under new influences from the lands to which their journeyings led them. They learned something from the practices of their Christian neighbours, wearing the hammer of Thor as the Christians wore the cross, raising impressive stone memorials like those which they saw in their travels and possibly building temples of carved wood in emulation of the stone churches. The bloodthirsty cults of the eastern lands which they reached by way of the Russian rivers seem to have given them a new enthusiasm for human and animal sacrifice, especially in honour of the god Odin, god of death and magic, who was still worshipped at Uppsala along with Freyr, the god of fertility, and Thor, the ruler of thunder. The Viking poets and storytellers knew many good tales, both serious and comic, about these gods, the powerful but fickle goddesses, and the giants who continually sought to overthrow the kingdom of Asgard.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 8a
Carving of a fish on a rock, Buskerud, Norway. The style of carving is different from that of the huge animal silhouettes. The outline has been divided up by a complex series of lines which may suggest scales.

The Sources

It is, however, important to remember that these stories have for the most part reached us in the work of Christian writers, and that much of the original heathen tradition was edited, misunderstood or forgotten before the myths reached us. The only written statements left by pagan men are short runic inscriptions on wood, bone, stone or metal. These, while they provide important evidence, tend to be cryptic both in syntax and thought, and therefore extremely difficult to interpret, particularly when they take the form of spells or curses or allusions to mythical beings. This is true also of the earliest skaldic poems, short alliterative verses packed with mythological allusions, which were composed by poets who lived before the conversion. We get an occasional glimpse of the life of the Vikings and their religious customs through the eyes of Latin writers, or Arab travellers who visited their settlements and trading centres. But such reporting is apt to be brief and unsympathetic, and to leave out the very things we most want to know. Therefore we must depend largely, even for this late period, on archaeological evidence about the symbols and characteristics of the gods, the places where men gathered to worship them, religious rites and burial customs. This evidence helps greatly towards the fuller understanding of the tangled evidence of the myths recorded in a Christian age. Further knowledge can be gained from the study of place-names and of the names and epithets of the gods in early poetry. In addition, the history of religion and myths outside Scandinavia enables us to see the evidence in a truer perspective.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 10
Head of a monster carved in wood, one of five such heads in varying styles found in the Oseberg ship-burial which are thought to have been carved by the same artists who carved the ornamental sledges. they have no obvious practical use, and were probably carried in procession or set up as symbols. Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo.

Saxo and Snorri

In the early days of Scandinavian Christianity, two scholars, a Dane and an Icelander, set to work to collect and record some of the old stories still current about the gods and goddesses. The first was an ecclesiastic historian of the twelfth century, Saxo Grammaticus, who included many tales about the gods in the first nine books of a lengthy history of Denmark, told in an elaborate Latin style which is not easy to read. He often shows disapproval of the characters in the legends, and evidently found some of the doings of the gods and early heroes improper and distasteful, but nevertheless he tells the stories well. He has preserved many tales and traditions which would otherwise have been lost.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 11
Rock carving from Kylver, Gotland, of twenty-four runes, making up the runic alphabet or ‘futhark’, dated to the fifth century A.D. By the Viking Age the number of runes had been reduced to sixteen. Knowledge of runes was said to have been given to men by the god Odin.

Very different was the second writer, Snorri Sturluson, a brilliant poet and historian as well as an active politician, who wrote in his native Icelandic. About the year 1220, he produced a handbook for poets, so that they would recognise allusions to the myths and use them correctly. Possibly he felt some indignation at his predecessor’s disparagement of the gods, for he recorded the old myths with love and enthusiasm. He wrote in controlled, ironic prose far ahead of most of his European contemporaries, with a full appreciation of the imaginative beauty and the dry humour of the tales he told. His Prose Edda was so successful that our knowledge of the northern myths is largely derived from it, and where we have been able to check his information from surviving poetry, it is surprisingly accurate. But Snorri was writing over two hundred years after Christianity was accepted by the Icelandic Assembly in the year 1000, and the myths presented him with many unsolved problems, as they also do us, so that owing to the limitations of his knowledge it is possible that he may at times unintentionally mislead us with incorrect interpretations.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 12
The Scandinavian world, with memories of its sacred places and strange mythological creatures, as seen by a map-maker of the 16th century. From a copy of the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, 1539, in the Universitetetsbibliotek, Uppsala.

The Poems

All too few mythological poems have survived, most of them contained in one precious manuscript, the Codex Regius, found in an Icelandic farmhouse in the seventeenth century, and generally known as the Elder or Poetic Edda. In the poems about the gods which form half of this collection, the supernatural beings encounter giants and dwarfs, take part in dialogues and riddle contests, and outwit one another in comic or tragic conflicts. The poems culminate in the destruction of the worlds of gods and men in the great disaster of Ragnarok.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 13a
Some idea of the timber halls of the Viking Age can be gained from this reconstruction of one of the buildings at Trelleborg, a military camp ca. A.D. 1000 on Zealand in Denmark.

Prose Works

Something further may be learned from other prose sources. The sagas or prose histories of the early kings of Norway and Sweden, retold by Snorri Sturluson and others from earlier traditions and poems, give a vivid picture of the conversion of Norway and tell us something of what went before. The Icelandic sagas are stories of the early settlers of Iceland, who were heathens of the ninth and tenth centuries. These sagas too are based partly on early oral traditions, but partly also on the ideas of gifted storytellers of the thirteenth century about what heathen Iceland was like. The legendary sagas, ‘stories of old time’, are even more mixed in their content, and contain romance material from abroad mingled with early native traditions recorded in a confused form, with fleeting echoes of heroic stories and tales of ancient kings and heroes in Scandinavia and the north of Russia.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 13
A rock carving of ships from the Bronze Age at Tune in Østfold, Norway. The figures of the crew, brandishing paddles, stand out in relief. The prow of the larger ship ends in an animal head, and behind it, on a raised seat, is the dominating figure which may represent a deity

Archaeology and Art

Thus while our knowledge of Scandinavian mythology is continually increasing, it must be clearly understood at the outset that our understanding of it is limited by the confused and incomplete nature of our sources. We owe much to the work of archaeologists in recent years, and the evidence which they have provided will be drawn on constantly throughout this book. There were three centres of ancient tradition, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, where the mythology can be tentatively traced back to its early beginnings. In the ninth century A.D. Iceland was colonised, mainly from Norway. It proved a wonderfully fertile source for stories and poems, and many of our written records come from the early monasteries there. Yet Iceland was settled fairly late in the heathen period, and the essential links with the holy places of Scandinavian homelands were cut, so that archaeologically our debt to Iceland is much less than to Sweden, where the old gods ruled up to the beginning of the twelfth century. Some evidence comes from outside Scandinavia, from those early settlements of the Vikings and particularly those in the British Isles, from which come some of the finest carved stones inspired by the pagan myths. On the other side of Europe, Swedish merchant adventurers along the Volga and the Dnieper on the way to Byzantium and the East were still heathen. Something can be learnt of their religious practices from Arab writers who came into contact with them. Archaeological work in Kiev, Novgorod and other Russian cities may in time add to our knowledge. In particular, the Baltic island of Gotland, which lies on the direct route between Sweden and the eastern settlements, has proved to be a treasure-house of religious symbolism, because of its rich collection of heathen memorial stones dating from the fifth century to the end of the Viking Age.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 14
Elaborate purse lid from the 7th century ship-burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, with a gold frame and ornamental plaques of considerable complexity, decorated with garnet and mosaic glass. The eagle figure and the man between two beasts are also found in Scandinavian work of the Vendel period, and have associations with the cult of Odin. British Museum, London.

Outside Scandinavia

Links with other Germanic peoples are also of great importance, and the discovery of the great treasure of Sutton Hoo has revealed how close were the bonds between Swedish Uppland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia in the seventh century, the last century when it was possible for Anglo-Saxons to practice the cults of the heathen gods without being harried by Christian priests. The symbolism of the Sutton Hoo royal grave shows a mixture of heathen and Christian tradition which will provide us with problems for a long time to come. Certainly archaeological evidence from England has helped to throw light on the paganism of the North, just as the great heroic of the Anglo-Saxons, Beowulf, which has a Scandinavian background for its heroes and monsters, has revealed something of the early history of the kings of Denmark and Sweden. More evidence comes from Germany, where heathenism lingered in pockets after the Christian Church was established there, leaving occasional traces in the form of carved stones and heathen cemeteries as well as the spells and stories of supernatural beings which survived into Christian times.

Thus the story of Scandinavian mythology has to be built up cautiously and patiently from many different sources and by many varying methods. Gradually a picture emerges, and we find it, as did Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century, a moving and exciting one. The gods of the North, whose roots, like those of their own World Tree, go down into the darkness of the past, are deities to command our respect and stir our imagination. The courage and loyalty and determination of the Vikings have long won admiration, in spite of the reckless destruction and cruelty which was the other side of the coin. Moreover, the faith which they practised was no superficial one. It lasted well over a thousand years in the North, and has in it not a little wisdom. It developed out of the thoughts and aspirations of men born into a tough world and reared in a hard climate. They had learned to adapt themselves to life, and for the most part undoubtedly found it good, steeling themselves to face its blows when they came without flinching, and to waste no time in vain regrets. Thus for all our advances in knowledge and sophistication, we may indeed have something to learn from Scandinavian mythology.

Scandinavian Mythology p. 15
Ships of the Bronze Age, together with animals and sun discs, carved on a rock at Kaines, Norway. It will be seen that the treatment of the different vessels in this group varies considerably.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s