Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives

  Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.


Joseph Harris, Harvard University

Interest in the individual myths and the mythic systems of the pre-Christian North has traveled a varied way through highs and lows since the seventeenth century. The twenty-first continues a period of intense scholarly interest since, perhaps, the 1960s and in this volume renews and modernizes the comparative (and reconstructive) view that has been one of the main approaches for many decades. In fact, although the volume has nothing of the textbook about it, its fifteen particular studies of very high intellectual and scholarly quality, along with its usefully contextualizing introductions, embody and illuminate practically all the possibilities for comparative approaches. In Folklore 101 our students learn a framework for explaining cultural similarities generally as “descent, diffusion, and polygenesis”. And there the topic ends in 101. This volume foregoes any such simple schema while potentially teaching subtle variations, combinations, and mediating forms of this very fundamental meme. Even as each scholar pursues his or her specific interests beyond theories of comparison and reconstruction, the meme remains a subtext well below the direct attention of most of the contributors.

The bookends of the volume, the volume’s first and last two contributions, are constituted by essays that elevate typology, on the one hand, and the genetic (specifically, descent), on the other, to prime importance. Jens Peter Schjødt argues for the application of comparison between appropriately analogous but unrelated mythologies through a specific idea of the “model”, a relatively complete mental map derived from one reality and hypothetically applied to the fragments of another to be reconstructed. He does not need to use the textbook term polygenesis, but the native Hawaiian mythology on which his model is based does share with Old Norse certain social facts, its relationship to Scandinavia being purely “typological”. Schjødt’s is the volume’s most explicit in respect to theories of comparative mythology, including comments on the other bookend, the essay by Michael Witzel and on genetic comparison in general. But one might take up genetic comparison and its result in reconstruction less controversially with the volume’s penultimate essay by Emily Lyle, who works here within the traditional framework of the Indo-European community, as represented by Iranian myth, but employs a model in a manner similar to Schjødt. And just as Schjødt is able to fill in some spaces between fragments of our knowledge of Odin, so Lyle—operating on one of the most fascinating myths in Old Norse, that of Baldr—is able virtually to augment that individual myth’s relation to a whole. Witzel’s comparativism in this essay is less explicitly concerned with theory and method, having previously written comprehensively in that vein. What makes his procedure startlingly new and controversial is his expansion of the historical field for comparison; it now stretches vastly farther into the human past than the Indo-European and presupposes genetic relations and evidences of population movements only recently introduced to historical studies.

Diffusion is most directly represented—and problematized—in Tom DuBois’s “areal” study of conceptions of the sun in the Finnic and Baltic mythologies in comparison with Nordic, plotting the varied solar myths from the Sámi in the North right through the Lativian dainas in the South and examining the resulting pattern. DuBois does not directly invoke the “hard” concepts of the older historical-geographic school, but his analysis gives us evidence of the intercultural relations within the areal scheme. Incidentally, his analysis reminds us indirectly and without jargon that cultural patterns seeming to imply vague impersonal forces (the “superorganic”) have to be complemented by focused and purposive diffusion in the form of “borrowing”. The volume includes a second valuable study of Finnish and Old Norse myth, John Lindow’s survey of many similarities between Nordic and Finnish mythologies; he tends to be skeptical of specific loans, even while giving a good account of the relevant cultural relations and making use of the model idea. Diffusion as specific borrowings comes into other papers as well. Joseph Nagy analyses a Nordic form of a strange tale with a history, presumably oral, extending back through Irish and Iranian. Contemporary, i.e., thirteenth-century, influences on Snorri’s mythology from European learning, especially about the Jews, is Richard Cole’s subject; Jonas Wellendorf shows, among other things, learned influences on conceptions of idols and other representations; and Mattias Nordvig posits influences from nature (in the specifically Icelandic form of volcanic eruptions) on the preserved cosmological passages and, reciprocally, mythic influence on the language used for such eruptions. Stephen Mitchell, Harvard’s resident thaumaturge of this collection, gives a comprehensive survey of the background of Odin’s communication with the dead, including possible source-representing analogues from the learned South.

While comparison and reconstruction in the senses just adumbrated do constitute themes through much of the volume, a core of excellent articles draw their comparisons more traditionally between segments of the greater field. The archeologist Torun Zachrisson and the history-of-religions scholar Olof Sundqvist, in their different ways, draw together evidence from both archeology and texts, two too often estranged disciplines. On the occasion of a striking new figural find from Southwest Sweden, Zachrisson gives an exhaustive account of Völund the Smith, especially in art and artifact. Sundqvist discusses the historical and archeological evidence for “the tree, the well, and the temple” at Uppsala, according to Adam of Bremen; but his article also has a strong theoretical component (favoring Eliade) and a valuable method that requires a broad survey of similar symbol-laden landscapes and of archival evidence. These two essays will be of great value to the mainly philological/literary readers of the volume. A voice from that literary side, that of Kate Heslop, also and very adroitly works with art-historical concepts around the “frame” in epigraphic and artistic contexts in comparison with eddic poetry. Heslop’s essay will be seized upon by literary critics as theoretically rich and suggestive. Heslop and most of these contributors, when they deal with verbal art and content, assume oral contexts, but two papers deal principally with this vital theme of orality and literacy. Pernille Hermann’s chapter embodies the more theoretical discussion, excellent of its kind; and Terry Gunnell applies oral tradition practically in a wide-ranging survey and defense of the Vanir gods.

At one point Lindow compares with Snorri’s age the relatively sophisticated and thorough Finnish collecting of oral tradition in the nineteenth century; thousands of notebooks of the latter are neatly arranged in archives while loss of a few (more) medieval manuscripts would have left us with precious little knowledge of Nordic mythology. One point is the vastness of oral tradition vs. the limits of technology: the oral is fleeting by nature, and medieval writing gave only a fragile permanence to its accidental preservations. Another might be the reconstructive nature of any knowledge of fragmentary myths and their systems and the value of the comparative method in that enterprise. This book assembles an impressive and variegated team of senior and younger scholars with wide international distribution. Their contributions will be admired and built upon as an important phase in the evolving field.