Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen

Judith Jesch reviews a thoughtful investigation into Norse religion

Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen
Author: Christopher Abram
Publisher: Continuum
Reviewed by: Judith Jesch
Price (RRP): £20

The Norse gods have had a remarkably long life over the past two millennia or so. Even today, some people profess to believe in them, and stories about them have inspired writers, artists and children of all ages since at least the tenth century.

Books about them range from the coffee-table type to dense academic tomes, and they feature extensively in popular culture.

When academics attempt to explain Norse mythology to a general audience, they tend to adopt an encyclopaedic approach, explaining the roles and characteristics of the individual gods and legendary heroes, while also surveying the various sources in which they appear.

Most authors struggle to bridge the gap between the medieval Christian sources, which provide most of our useful information about the gods and their adventures, and the knotty problem of how these gods might actually have been worshipped in the pagan period, for which there is much less, and less convincing, evidence.

The solution taken by Abram, a historian at UCL, is to view this as primarily a chronological problem, and to present the story of the Norse gods as a historical narrative in its own right.

After the obligatory chapter on “The Sources of Norse Mythology”, he starts with the Germanic context of religious culture, and moves through the Viking Age and the period of religious conflict and conversion to a final chapter in which Norse mythology is ‘reborn’ in the works of the medieval Christian authors who so strongly influence our current understanding of the myths.

The most innovative aspect of Abram’s account is the emphasis he places on skaldic verse, particularly in his chapters dealing with the Viking Age and the conversion period.

Though it would be easy to dismiss this poetry as no more ancient than the high medieval sources in which it is preserved, Abram takes the more challenging line that some of it is indeed originally from the pagan period and very successfully teases all kinds of new insights from it. He does this by paying much closer attention to the contexts and detail of this poetry than previous commentators.

The analysis is particularly good on the close relationship between some aspects of paganism, and power and politics in 10th and 11th-century Norway. Abram argues controversially but stimulatingly that the poem Völuspá, a classic statement of the death of the old gods and the rebirth of a new (Christian?) world, originated in the crucible of religious conflict that was late 10th-century Norway, rather than in Iceland in 1000.

Advanced academic readers will quibble at some of the detail of Abram’s argument; some of his skaldic analyses are debatable and he overstates the extent to which “the Poetic Edda [a body of Icelandic literature]... only came into being around 1270”, ignoring the palaeographical evidence for its predecessors, which seems to take it back to around 1200.

But this is undoubtedly a learned, informative and enjoyable account of the Norse myths that presents a new model for future discussion. 

Judith Jesch is professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham

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