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.

Pre-Christian Religions of the North and the Need for Comparativism: Reflections on Why, How, and with What We Can Compare

Jens Peter Schjødt, Aarhus University

Abstract: This article is concerned with some of the problems we have in attempting to reconstruct the pre-Christian religion of the North from extant sources which are for the most part much later than the beliefs and practices they describe. This situation, it is argued, necessitates the use of comparative material of various kinds. In discussing various theoretical considerations, the essay argues that models based on comparative evidence are always part of historical reconstructions and may even prove more important than traditional source criticism, but also that different kinds of comparative material create different kinds of models. Finally the paper argues that even material from cultures which are completely unrelated, historically, to the pre-Christian religion of the North may be of great value when it comes to formulating relevant questions about the Old Norse material.


The aim of the following article is to discuss some of the problems involved in attempting to reconstruct the pre-Christian religion of the North. As will be argued in a moment, using comparisons, and thus a comparative method, is unavoidable in these attempts, and the emphasis, therefore, will be on the questions indicated in the title, namely: why is it necessary to compare; are there certain “rules” to observe when we compare if we are going to do so in a scholarly acceptable way; and are there some cultures or cultural phenomena with which it makes more sense to compare than others?

Before dealing with these questions, however, it will be necessary to make a distinction between two types of comparativism, a distinction which may have a heuristic value for the questions just raised, as they cannot be used in the same way or for the same purposes. These two comparativisms may be labeled “typological” and “genetic”, the first category comparing cultures and religions which are not historically related—which have no political, economic, or linguistic relationship. The second category, on the other hand, compares cultures and cultural products that in some way are historically related at one of these levels, such as, for instance, the Scandinavians on the one hand and the Sámi, other Germanic peoples, or Indo-Europeans on the other. I have dealt with these issues in several recent articles (Schjødt 2012a, 2013, and forthcoming), and discussed (particularly in Schjødt forthcoming) some of the problems in using the second category of comparisons, arguing that such comparisons are of importance for the way we usually reconstruct Old Norse religion. In the following, I will in contrast deal primarily with the first category—the “typological” comparisons, i.e. the similarities not based on cultural historical relations. To make things more complicated, however, the distinctions between these two categories of comparisons are not necessarily absolute. What is thought by some to be typological may in fact turn out to be genetic. A good example of this can be seen in the so-called Laurasian mythologies recently analyzed by Michael Witzel. The term “Laurasian” designates, roughly, the mythologies of the northern hemisphere, the similarities of which, according to Witzel, are genetic, whereas the traditional view would clearly be that similarities between, say, Scandinavian and Chinese mythologies should be classified as typological (Witzel 2012). [1]

Typological comparisons have always played an important role within the history of religions. The founding father of the discipline, Friedrich Max Müller, pronounced in his famous statement back in 1873 that “he who knows one, knows none” (Müller 1873: 16), which, at least from a certain perspective, seems undoubtedly true: we would not even be able to recognize the very phenomenon of religion as a universal category if we knew only one religion. This is so because, as was pointed out by another of the great comparativists, Mircea Eliade, religion always manifests itself in a certain cultural form: religions are different from each other because cultures are different from each other, but behind all the differences lies some common religious “essence” (e.g. Eliade 1969: 8–9). Eliade famously used this idea to reconstruct the “essence” of religion, with all the notions that are so well-known nowadays: “hierophany”, the myth of eternal return, the sacred as the only true mode of existence, and so on. Eliade has been heavily criticized for his “quasi-religious” agenda, rightly so in my opinion, as often in his work there appears to be a total lack of methodological awareness in the way he carries out his comparisons. In this respect, Eliade may remind us strongly of a third of the great comparativists of the past, namely Sir James George Frazer. Of course, Frazer’s and Eliade’s projects were quite different. The idea, however, that religious phenomena that bear the slightest similarity, even when drawn from different cultures, should be seen as related to some sort of common “archetype”—although the notion was not explicitly expressed by Frazer—is to some extent implied throughout the latter’s The Golden Bough, with its pivotal theme of the death and resurrection of the king. Having said this, however, I believe that we must also acknowledge that most religions, in some ways, do look alike. There are, beneath the surface, definitely similar elements that constitute prerequisites for recognizing religion as such in the first place. The reason for this being so is far beyond the scope of this essay, and concerns the reasons for the very origin of religion; and theories on this topic cannot be created through historical studies, but must occur in the context of psychological, cognitive, or sociological research.

Comparativism was long abandoned by the ruling elite of the history of religions and anthropology (Segal 2001), a point to which I will return; but, to put it briefly, there were several reasons for such a development, some of them having to do with the way comparativism was performed, others with its basis in the evolutionism of the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth (see Kuper 1988). An additional factor derives from structural-functionalist views of how religions should be studied, namely as more or less closed universes in which all elements are parts of an “organism” that constitutes society. These issues will be dealt with briefly in the following.


In order to understand why it is particularly important to use a comparative method in order to reconstruct pre-Christian Scandinavian religion, we must examine some of the problems involved in such reconstructions, in relation to the source situation.

Put this way, scholarship faces a host of problems: on the one hand, we have a group of sources that are reliable but very hard to interpret with any certainty; besides, although the amount of archaeological source material is extremely high—and is growing very fast—the number of “indigenous” written sources is limited to not very many poems and a few relevant runic inscriptions. On the other hand, the foreign sources, whether we speak of the Scandinavian or the European, are, from a traditional source-critical perspective, doubtful in many ways: they are often characterized by negative prejudice, both because of religious matters, but also because the Scandinavians were seen as enemies in most of Europe during the Viking Age, and just as the Scandinavians were seen as barbarians, so too were their gods and their cults. Among the Christian Scandinavians themselves, things are a bit more complicated, since, as mentioned, large parts of their pagan worldview continued to play a role in their daily lives. And besides, particularly in Iceland in the Middle Ages, much of the national identity was dependent on the period of settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries by their pagan predecessors, which is probably the reason why so much information about the pagan religion comes from this island in the North Atlantic. Regardless, by far the largest part of the information related in the sources is written by “foreigners”, that is, by people who only knew the pagan tradition as something which was more or less in opposition to their own religion. And even if these, mostly Christian, authors did relate a good deal of information about various aspects of the pagan religion, we still have a lot of blind spots: thus we are pretty well informed about mythological matters, but know rather little about the ritual parts of the religion. This is not surprising, since other peoples’ myths may take the shape of folktales, pseudohistory, or pure entertainment, while pagan rituals, at least in so far as they are recognized as such, cannot be performed among people who see themselves as Christians.

For these reasons our knowledge about pagan Scandinavian religion is far from exhaustive. What we have consists of bits and pieces that only constitute “the tips of the religious icebergs” (cf. Clunies Ross 1994: 25). In order to understand how these bits and pieces should be put together as a religious worldview, we therefore need to reconstruct the connecting lines between them, from sources which are not part of the pre-Christian religion itself. It is here that the comparative method finds its raison d’être in the specific context of this religion (and probably in all other religions that no longer exist), for without comparisons, we would not be able to create the models necessary in order to make sense of the various pieces of the information in the sources; without comparisons, this information would remain chaotic. “Model” should be understood here as a cognitive tool that can be characterized as a filter through which we perceive the world around us; thus all humans, scholars and religious people alike, in the course of their struggles with reality, use models that are often unconscious, in the same way as, for example, grammar is to native speakers of a given language. Such models are therefore part of the worldview of each individual.

Scholarly or scientific models, however, are both similar to, and different from, ordinary models. They are similar to the degree that whenever we approach a subject field, we necessarily see it through lenses that frame the way we can deal with a certain phenomenon at all, and these are surely time bound. To take a banal example, in explaining historical events, a modern historian would never recur to the intervention of God, which was, however, exactly how many medieval historians explained the events. One readily recalls, for instance, the Venerable Bede, who understood the Christianization process in England as one long line of divine intervention. In more recent times there seems to have been a shift away from viewing history as a process driven by the will of outstanding individuals to seeing it against the background of social and economic mechanisms. Yet scholarly models are also different in the sense that they are (or ought to be) based on reflective, critical, and rational thinking, meaning that they are construed in order to explain or understand certain aspects of reality in accordance with everything else we know about reality. As such, they have to be coherent, which is certainly not the case with many religious models. What is more, scientific models are always based on comparative thinking, such as, for instance, general social or economic models.

It must be stated that models are, of course, man-made. The quality, therefore, is to a great extent dependent on the modeler’s individual skills in relation to his or her purposes. These skills include his or her ability to perceive the important aspects of that part of the historical reality which it is the goal to reconstruct. From the outset there exist no such things as “right models” or “wrong models”. Models are made in order to, on the one hand, make sense of, and thus to classify, the individual elements within a reality which would otherwise seem chaotic; and, on the other hand, when it comes to scientific models, to explain and interpret a chosen part of reality in accordance with our knowledge about the rest of reality. The quality of the model, then, depends on its usefulness for our purpose—in this case, the reconstruction of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion.

We may construe our models from various levels of comparisons. As was done by, for instance, Eliade, we can thus take into consideration religions from all over the world, in order to propose a general model for the “essence” of religion as a universal phenomenon. Notwithstanding some of the problems mentioned earlier, such a project may be quite legitimate. Likewise, in order to argue for some general mechanisms in the relationship between religion and society, we may take all manner of sociological theories and models into consideration; however, when it comes to the reconstruction of a certain historical religion from evidence which does not allow us to draw the whole picture of such a religion (partly because the sources do not tell us everything and partly because their reliability is often rather problematic) there are certain rules we ought to stick to in order to use comparisons in a reasonable way, a point to which I shall return in a moment.


Comparativism, as noted in the introduction, is very old within the study of religion, although it played a less prominent role during most of the twentieth century than had previously been the case, and that I believe it will play again in the twenty-first century. Functionalism and certain (but by no means all) schools within structuralism were very hesitant regarding comparative enterprises, with scholars such as Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Clifford Geertz, Edmund Leach, and many others insisting that in order to understand the worldview of a certain culture, it was necessary to view the individual elements as parts of the larger whole which constituted the culture under discussion. Thus the scholar dealing with religion would have to provide what Geertz calls “thick description”, i.e., take notice of everything going on in the society, as far as possible, as the details will only make sense when they are viewed as parts of the whole. If we want to understand the full meaning of some symbolic expression, we have to be aware of the position of this expression within the overall symbolic structure. That means that even if we see apparently similar elements in two different cultures, their purposes and meanings will probably be different, because their contexts are different.

This perspective is, I believe, very sensible, at least regarding the encoding of details within certain myths and rituals in individual cultures, as has been shown, for instance, in the ritual analyses of Victor Turner (1969) and the myth analyses of Claude Lévi-Strauss (for example, his famous analysis of the Asdiwal story (1976: 146–96)): in order to understand the symbolism and meaning of a particular ritual or a particular myth, we must, as far as possible, take into consideration the whole ethnographic context. This program is definitely sound, and it is true that the comparisons carried out by some of the comparativists mentioned above seem to transfer meanings from one culture to another without caring too much about the particularities of the individual culture. [7] Turner and Lévi-Strauss—and also some of the functionalists mentioned above—have however shown beyond doubt, as far as I can see, that at a certain level all rituals or all myths, and even all religions, circle around identical themes, such as the oppositions between liminal vs. non-liminal, or that between nature vs. culture, and many others. Therefore, at some level, we “know” what a certain religion is about, even without having looked at any primary sources for that religion. For example, we know that all religions imply communication between “this” world and the “other” world or worlds; we know that all religions need certain religious specialists in order to mediate between these worlds; we know that rituals, among other things, create social identity; and so forth. In this way a “rough” model is already at hand, although we can hardly hope, at this level, to be able to reconstruct many details. And we can certainly not use this “rough picture” to reconstruct the characteristics of individual religions in relation to each other.

As noted, one main reason why many of the older comparative studies of religion are not accepted as valid today is that the comparisons drawn often seem superfluous: just because things “looked” the same, they may very well have had very different meanings and functions within two different religions. Let us take an example from pre-Christian Scandinavian religion: because Óðinn, on certain occasions, seems to use magical techniques which remind us strongly of those performed by the shamans in neighboring cultures, he has by some been seen as a shaman. This interpretation is, for instance, the case in Eliade’s great work on shamanism in general (Eliade 1972), but also in some more recent works dealing with pre-Christian Scandinavian religion in particular (Solli 2002; Price 2002; Hedeager 2011). It is of course necessary to be able to classify various phenomena, to put them in certain boxes, so to speak, which is one of the main tasks of the discipline usually called the phenomenology of religion; and it is certainly true that magical techniques such as soul travel and the infliction of pain upon oneself can be found among many genuine shamans from the arctic and subarctic area, and we can also see these in the case of Óðinn. The question is, however, whether this suffices to classify Óðinn as a shaman. We know that the Germanic-speaking Scandinavians, living in the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula, had relatively close contacts with the Sámi, and that Sámi “magic” was therefore widely known, even famous, among these Scandinavians. [8] It is thus à priori likely that certain shamanistic rites were adopted into their own practices (of the sort we might term magical).

Thus, on the one hand, Óðinn’s “shamanistic” traits cover only part of the constituent elements of shamanism. On the other hand, traits that are not typical for shamanism seem to be very important characteristics of Óðinn, such as his role as divine protector of kings and war bands, the existence of which cannot be found in typical shamanistic societies. What is more, several of the so-called shamanistic traits are strongly connected to his role as guardian god of the nobility, such as the acquisition of knowledge, which exists in order to be passed on to kings, and ecstasy, which is a prerequisite for the success of his warriors (see Schjødt 2008). Another rather important difference between Óðinn and what are traditionally seen as shamans is that Óðinn is a god, whereas shamans are, by definition, human beings (although there are, of course, also shamans in myth, just as there are also ordinary human beings).

Finally, mention should also be made of the differences between the societies which are usually classified as shamanistic and that of the Germanic-speaking Scandinavians. Whereas the former are typically hunting or nomadic societies, the Scandinavians were agriculturalists; the former generally live in very widespread, small groups of people, while the Scandinavians had, since the early Roman Iron Age, lived in larger groups in villages and eventually towns. So there are, not surprisingly, both similarities and differences between the typical shaman, as normally identified and characterized in the history of religions, and Óðinn. So is the figure of the shaman “the same” as the figure of Óðinn?

Of course, “sameness” is a tricky notion, since most people, including scholars, do not reflect very much on what it actually means; however, “the same” will always include differences too, because otherwise two entities would be exact copies, identical in every respect, and copies in that sense do not exist in the world of religions. Thus, when we do use the notion of “sameness” or “similarity”, we are focusing on certain aspects of a certain phenomenon. For instance, “I have the same car as my neighbor” would normally mean that it is the same model, but not necessarily the same color or the same engine, and the two cars do not have to be of the same age. Thus, qualification of what we mean by “similar religious phenomena” is necessary, something which has not usually been done. “Similar” phenomena, or “sameness” of course has something to do with categories: “red” things are similar in relation to the category of color; bicycles and trains are similar because they both belong to the category of transportation, and so forth. For certain purposes, a model classifying bicycles and trains in the same category would certainly make sense (if, for example, we want to compare differences in health conditions among people who use different kinds of transportation), whereas it would make no sense if the purpose were to investigate the major sources of pollution created by various means of transportation (cars, aircrafts, and trains).

Returning to the Óðinn example, it is thus a matter of perspective whether we choose to see Óðinn as a shaman: there are similarities, but there are certainly also differences; and the question will then be which classificatory model we choose, and what we want to use it for. Even if we need to be aware that models are not reality, because we have no direct access to reality without the filter through which we perceive the world, we have to accept that some models are better than others for a given purpose, because they fit better with the evidence in the sources and with what we know about general social and psychological mechanisms. Or, rather: good models have a larger amount of explanatory power in relation to a certain problem than a bad model does. In applying these considerations to the Óðinn example, we may thus see that we are dealing with two different sets of methods, although both of a comparative nature, depending on whether we choose to characterize Óðinn as a shaman or not. The methods we use when we view Óðinn as a shaman are thus comparisons of individual elements: soul travel, ecstasy, and other traits that are characteristic of shamanism; since Óðinn certainly soul-travels, creates ecstasy, and so forth, accordingly, Óðinn should be seen as a shaman.

The problem with these kinds of comparisons, however, is that, as was suggested earlier, individual elements may occur in different contexts in various religions. Actually, in most religions, some sort of “soul traveling” can be found: for instance, mystics in many of the so-called “higher” religions are able to travel to the other world, and thus approach God in a way that is not possible for ordinary people, and myths from all over the world tell of people going to the land of the dead, or that of the gods—yet neither mystics or visitors of the dead are seen as shamans. Thus, similarities at the level of individual elements may be coincidental, in the sense that they can be found all over the world in quite different contexts. We can thus hardly use such similarities for reconstructions of any kind, although they may occasionally be used for establishing theories about influences.

Another, and in my opinion much more convincing, level of comparisons is that of structure, i.e., a whole group of elements which are related in similar ways in various cultures. That sort of comparativism has been carried out by such distinguished scholars as George Dumézil among genetically related cultures, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, sometimes using typological comparisons. Michael Witzel argued recently for another variant of the genetic comparisons in connection with his so-called Laurasian mythology, where he speaks of a common “story line” among a huge group of mythologies (Witzel 2012). A story line should, in this context, be understood as a syntagmatic structure, along the same lines as that Vladimir Propp utilized in his analyses of the Russian folk tale. It seems obvious that whether we are talking about paradigmatic (as with Lévi-Strauss) or syntagmatic structures (as with Dumézil [10] and Witzel), such structures would involve a sufficient number of elements, ordered in certain relations, such that we can use them in creating models that can be used for reconstructions, whether we are talking about reconstructions of “Laurasian mythology”, “Indo-European mythology”, or just “pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology”. For as I have argued on other occasions, speaking about “pre-Christian Scandinavian mythology” certainly involves comparisons, which are, in principle, of the same nature as other genetic comparisons, since not many scholars would today subscribe to a view that only one “religion” existed in Scandinavia in the pre-Christian era (cf. Schjødt 2009, 2012a: 275–77).

These considerations mean that for our Óðinn example, in order for him to qualify as a shaman, I would suggest that we must be able to characterize the Óðinn figure in its entirety, or at least in its main components, as a shaman—that his “structure”, so to speak, be isomorphic with that of the shaman. If this is not the case, as I do not believe it is, we may very well speak of shaman-like traits, most likely borrowed from the Sámi neighbors to the north. But the main traits of the Óðinn figure, which appear to be very old within Germanic religions, no doubt have parallels with figures such as the Vedic Varuna and the Germanic Mercury-Wodan from the beginning of the Common Era. These figures were probably influenced relatively little by shamanism, although also in these cases too, individual shamanic features may occur. Therefore it would, in my opinion, be methodologically incorrect to classify Óðinn as a shaman—he simply does not fulfill the condition of his individual characteristics forming a structure that is similar to that of a shaman.

Another point that should be briefly addressed here is the notion of “discourse”, although I have dealt with that also in earlier publications (Schjødt 2012a, 2013). A discourse, as I use the term, should be seen as a space within which a certain notion, be it a god or some other social phenomenon, can be addressed and thought about by the members of a given culture. Thus we can speak of an Óðinn-discourse or a Þórr-discourse, etc., as well as of discourses connected to sexuality, war, ethics, nature, and all sorts of phenomena of some importance for the culture in question. Such discourses are constituted by everything that can be said about a certain phenomenon, not by what was actually said. Within the pre-Christian religions of pagan Scandinavia anyway, we would not know what was actually said about a certain god, for instance Óðinn, because what we do know is that only a tiny bit of what was said and formulated in the pre-Christian era has been passed down to us. Thus, all we can hope for is to reconstruct the discursive space within which every utterance about Óðinn took place.

As we saw earlier, it could be said that Óðinn was clever, that he knew about magic, that he could give advice about war strategy, and so on. What could not be said—what was outside the frames of the Óðinn discourse—would be, for instance, that he was unknowledgeable, or that he was a young brilliant warrior, or that he was reliable. In this sense we can say that the discourse is constituted by the sum of, and the relations between, the various pieces of information in the sources—and many more which are not in the sources, but which might be construed on the basis of structural comparisons. Yet more importantly, perhaps, are the relations that exist within a certain discourse, between the individual elements. Again, to give a rather banal example: when Saxo Grammaticus relates that Hadingus hanged himself in front of all his people (1, 8,27), we get no explanation for this spectacular behavior, beyond the fact that Hadingus did not want to survive his friend, the Swedish king; however, because we have a model, gained from the general study of religion, telling us that humans perform rituals which were often performed for the first time by the gods, we do not hesitate to see a relation between the self-sacrifice of Óðinn and Hadingus’s suicide. This relation further becomes part of a larger structure involving the relationship between Óðinn and kings in general, so that we may use the Hadingus story (among other sources, of course) to reconstruct a discourse that involves the relationship between Óðinn and kings. It thus makes sense to maintain that a discourse is constituted by certain structural relations, be they social or purely mythological.

The next question that I believe natural to address would then be, which kind of cultures it would make sense to compare the pre-Christian of the North with.

With what?

In principle, as was discussed above, we can compare everything to everything else. It may not make much sense, but technically, there are almost no limits on what we can compare to, for instance, the pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. When, however, the purpose of the comparison is to reconstruct this religion, and to be able to pose new and relevant questions, some religions may be better suited than others for comparison. This situation is due to the fact that there are, of course, different types of religion, and that some are more similar to the pre-Christian religion than others. I omit here genetic comparisons because, as mentioned above, I have dealt with them in other publications. In general, however, I emphasize that there can be no doubt that genetic comparisons are more helpful than typological ones when it comes to the reconstruction of details of myths and rituals (cf. Schjødt Forthcoming), but here I shall argue, nevertheless, that typological comparisons may also be of benefit to our reconstructions of Old Norse religion and to our construction of useful models if they are carried out properly.

In this connection, we must carefully reflect on the possibilities, as well as their limits. The main problem can be posed in a very simple way: is it possible to reconstruct some of the connecting lines between the individual pieces of information that were dealt with above, and might it even be possible to reconstruct elements of which we are not informed at all through the use of such typological comparisons? I think it is, although, again, we will never be sure that such reconstructions actually correspond to the pagan reality. Theories about, and thus models of, the past will never be in a 1-to-1 relationship with the past reality itself. Such comparisons may, however, inspire us to suggest new and fresh interpretations of the sources—to say nothing about posing new questions, as was also mentioned above.

The relevant chapter in Bellah’s book for our purposes is titled “From tribal to archaic religion”, dealing with societies that have left the tribal stage, but have not yet reached the archaic stage (although there certainly are remarkable similarities among these transitional societies and the fully archaic ones). This stage is clearly also that of the pagan Germanic religions in the first millennium CE: even if we can speak of tribes, we are definitely not dealing with tribes in the sense that Bellah is talking about, namely societies up to about 150 persons. For instance, we know that the German leader Ariovistus could bring at least 30,000 warriors (and according to Caesar rather more than 80,000) from different tribes to his struggle against the Romans in the first century BCE; less than a century later, Arminius probably led an army of more than 20,000 warriors into battle against Varus. From the Roman Iron Age in Scandinavia, the weapon deposits in Illerup Ådal in eastern Jutland, for example, contain weapons from between 2,000 and 3,000 dead warriors (Andrén 2014: 44)—all of which takes us far away from the small tribal units that Bellah classifies as “tribes”.

On the other hand, in the North, we cannot speak about “archaic societies” comparable with those of the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece or pre-Confucian China. The largest town in Scandinavia in the Viking Age was Haithabu, with approximately 1,000 inhabitants, or even fewer. So, all in all, if Bellah’s evolutionary scheme resembles reality, the Germanic—including the Scandinavian (albeit with some delay)—societies had left the small-scale communities of earlier periods well before entering the Common Era, but had not reached the archaic phase before they were Christianized. In the chapter on the religion of such transitional cultures, Bellah analyses two societies in some detail, namely the Tikopian and the Hawaiian. In both cases, there seem to be many correspondences to Iron-Age Scandinavian culture, although the former were much smaller, and the latter considerably larger and more densely populated. As a sociologist, what interests Bellah is primarily the relationship between religion and social structure. Therefore, since the position of leaders is a focal point of his account, it would be natural to take this as the starting point for a discussion of whether we can use comparisons based on typological parallels to formulate relevant questions and propose relevant models for our reconstructions.

What distinguishes societies at this transitional stage from those of a tribal kind is that they tend towards a rather strong hierarchical structure with a powerful chief or king at the top, in contrast to tribal societies, which are characterized by egalitarianism. Of course, even in tribal cultures, we often see a kind of chief, but they are almost exclusively connected to religious duties, and play no role outside the ritual sphere (Bellah 2011: 181). However, as early populations grew, mainly because of the possibilities that agriculture offered, new land had to be conquered and greater planning—and much more discipline—was required, and things changed: to put it simply, more clearly institutionalized leadership was required. From then on, “leadership operates to intensify economic activity beyond what households alone would produce, but leaders gain in prestige rather than in enhanced material rewards: their gain is more from what they give than what they keep” (Bellah 2011: 194). Such land acquisition inevitably intensified warfare, and warfare created chiefs with warrior skills, although they might still be religiously legitimized (for “nothing is ever lost”); and thus “true” chiefdoms arose with hierarchical structures, including strong social and economic differences between chiefs and the circles around them (such as on Hawaii, for example, where a separate class of priests developed) on the one hand, and commoners on the other hand.

This development did not necessarily lead to large-scale social formations, but it could if there were cultural and geographical possibilities, that is, if the need for land became strong enough and if populations were dense enough. Thus the chief or leader’s role changed dramatically in the transition from tribal to archaic society and religion: from being more concerned with rituals, he came to also deal with secular affairs, not least war, although not losing a strong and legitimizing role in ritual (Bellah 2011: 204). Thus, on Hawaii, from being a part of the community, and like the rest of the community a descendant of the gods, the chief and other members of the royal lineage became the sole descendants of the gods. Often the king was seen as a god himself (Valeri 1985: 142–44), not related to the common people at all, but rather holding an intermediate position between god and people, being seen as simultaneously divine and human and therefore the principal mediator between men and gods. For this reason, genealogies of the nobles came to play an important role (Valeri 1985: 157).

The other part of the year, during which wars were fought, was ritually centered around the Luakini temple, the temple for Ku, the greatest of the gods and a typical war deity. During these rituals, human sacrifices took place at every stage. Only the ruler, who also impersonated Ku, could authorize human sacrifice: “he was in a sense, sacrifier (the one on whose behalf the sacrifice is performed), sacrificer (the priestly officiant of the sacrifice) and, symbolically, the sacrifice, for the victim, through his sacrificial death, “becomes” the chief” (Bellah 2011: 202). Thus, the ruler impersonated the two gods who were of utmost importance for the Hawaiians, namely Lono and Ku, rulers over fertility and war, respectively. [16] In schematic form, we thus get the following:

Makahiki Luakini
Lono Ku
Growth, fertility, femininity War, masculinity
Sex Death
No human sacrifices Human sacrifices
Egalitarianism Hierarchy
Circumambulation/first fruit Authorizing human sacrifice
Ruler identifies with Lono Ruler identifies with Ku

Admittedly this summary is somewhat selective, but, nevertheless, if we turn to the Old Scandinavian material, we find some remarkable parallels, although it is not possible here to present a detailed argument. We can, for instance, glimpse the same development in Scandinavia when it comes to descent: from Tacitus we learn that all the Germanic tribes were descended from the gods, whereas in Norse sources only chieftains and kings are believed to descend from gods, either Freyr or Óðinn. Only once—in the eddic poem Rígsþula, which is certainly a special case because it is a sociogony rather than an anthropogony—is it told that anyone other than the aristocrats are believed to be descendants of gods. There are also indications that the year was divided into two spheres, as has been argued by Terry Gunnell and more implicitly by John McKinnell, who wrote about the “winter king” and “summer king” (Gunnell 2000: 138–39; McKinnell 2005, esp. 78–79).

I have argued elsewhere that at some point during the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages it is possible to distinguish between “Freyr kings” and “Óðinn kings” as “peace kings” and “war kings”, respectively, who eventually turn into a single ruler responsible for the two main areas for which a Scandinavian king was responsible, namely the well-being of the land and success in war (Schjødt 2012b: 73–79). The sources clearly indicate that human sacrifices were given mainly to Óðinn, the war god, whereas the ritual feasts for Freyr involved dancing and obscene songs. We are not told directly about sexual promiscuity, but in connection with the dances it could easily be imagined, as, for instance, during the sacrifices in Uppsala, as related by Saxo, concerning Starcatherus’s stay there (Gesta Danorum 6, 5,10). We also know that circumambulation was connected to the fertility god, as is related by Tacitus concerning Nerthus (Germania ch. 40), and in Ögmundar þáttr dytts ok Gunnars helmings, concerning Freyr. Finally the description that Bellah gives of the king in his form of Ku reminds us strongly of what we know about Óðinn as he performs his famous “self-sacrifice” (Hávamál st. 138–41): Óðinn benefits from the sacrifice, since he is given the runes; it is he who performs the sacrifice, and should thus be seen as the sacrificer, and he is certainly also the victim.

More could be said, and more parallels found, but I believe the point is made. The first question we could therefore ask is how we can explain parallels of this sort? We cannot, of course, postulate any sort of influence between the two cultures. The Hawaiian society, as just described, probably developed between 1100 and 1500 CE, and it is not very likely that they met many Vikings in the Pacific. So we cannot speak of influence. Another explanation would be to maintain that we are dealing with some sort of “archetype”, but in that case—apart from being unlikely, anyway—we should expect such parallels in many other societies, at different stages of their development, all over the world. That leaves us, as far as I can see, with only one potential solution: namely that, in accordance with Bellah’s arguments, when it comes to the relations between ruler and people, between the ruler’s participation in agricultural and warrior rituals, between gods of agriculture and gods of war, between kings and bloody sacrifices, and between kings and fertility rituals, parallel societal situations will tend to create similar religious phenomena on a structural level. Naturally, many differences exist as well—although we must remember that similarity is not identicality. This, however, is hardly surprising. The interesting thing here is the similarities. When the parallels are as clear as seems to be the case here, then, in my opinion, the situation strongly indicates that cultures which are more or less on the same technological and political levels will tend to develop parallel religious traits and structures, which is exactly what Bellah argues.

If Bellah is right—as I think he is—then the next question to be asked would be what use can we make of these parallels in dealing with the pre-Christian religion of the North? First and foremost, it is obvious that looking at such cultures will enable us to ask qualified and relevant questions of the material (e.g., to which gods was the king particularly connected?) as opposed to a different kind of question, such as those actually raised some fifty years ago, namely, “Was the king seen as sacral in pre-Christian Scandinavia?” which is simply not a qualified question, since in all comparable cultures, he certainly was sacred. With the Hawaiian and many other examples from pre-archaic and archaic cultures, we “know” that kings in such societies, as a means of legitimization, must, in all likelihood, have some divine qualities which were likely to be expressed in certain rituals. Thus, apart from suggesting relevant questions—and ruling out irrelevant ones—comparisons along the lines of this new social-evolutionary theory may also help us in reconstructing some basic traits in cultures which we, primarily because of the source situation, do not know as much about as we might wish. In this way, cultures with better source situations may help us construct relevant models, and therefore fill in some of the lacunae we face. In the case of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion, I therefore believe that this way of using a comparative method—to create basic religious models—will in most instances overrule traditional source criticism, as no source-critical method can reject this sort of model.

As mentioned earlier, these models, if they are good—i.e., well-argued—will be able to put, certainly not all, but some or perhaps even most of the individual pieces of information in the sources into their right places. In doing so, we will thus be able to reconstruct—not every discourse, and particularly not fine details—but quite a large part of some important discourses from the religion in question. The prerequisite for this is, of course, that the religions we choose for comparison are of the same socio-economic type as the one with which we are primarily dealing. It nonetheless bears reiterating, however, that we can never be certain that our reconstructions are “correct”, but they may suggest a way of improving our understanding of what pre-Christian Scandinavian religion could have been like.


My aim here has been to show that without comparison it is almost impossible to reconstruct anything within pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. Even if some scholars are not aware that this is the case, comparisons, explicit or implicit, typological or genetic, have always played a major role for our understanding of this religion, or perhaps more correctly these religious traditions. Furthermore, it has been argued that although many details will remain enigmatic, we are, to a fairly high degree, able to reconstruct its basic structures on the basis of comparisons, against which we must view the information related in the source material. This has been acknowledged by many when it comes to genetic comparison, whereas typological comparisons have for a long time been discredited, partly because of the lack of methodological awareness among scholars such as Frazer and Eliade. Although also conducting typological comparisons, such scholars compared on the level of individual elements, whereas what we should compare are structures of various kinds, based on qualified models. We also have to acknowledge that religions used for genetic comparisons are often much more similar to the religion in question than are those of the typological kind. Nevertheless, accepting even partially Bellah’s evolutionary theory, it seems that relations between societal types, and certain types of religion, may help us to connect the various pieces of information in the Old Norse sources in order to generate a clearer picture of pagan Scandinavian religion.

Works Cited

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Flateyjarbók. En samling af norske kongesagaer med indskudte mindre fortællinger om begivenheder i og udenfor Norge samt Annaler. 3 vols. Ed. Guðbrandur Vigfússon and Carl R. Unger. Christiania: 1860–1868.


Tacitus. Tacitus: Agricola, Germania, Dialogus. Transl. M. Hutton. Revised by E. H. Warmington. Loeb Classical Library 35. Cambridge: 1970.

Gesta Danorum

Saxo Grammaticus. Saxo Grammaticus: Gesta Danorum: Danmarkshistorien. Ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen and transl. Peter Zeeberg [into Danish]. Copenhagen: 2005.


Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes: Books 1–9. Ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson and transl. Peter Fisher. Cambridge: 2008.


Snorri Sturluson. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. 2nd ed. London: 2005.


Snorri Sturluson: Edda. Ed. and transl. Anthony Faulkes. London: 1995.

Hávamál : see Poetic Edda

Poetic Edda

Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Ed. Gustav Neckel and Hans Kuhn. Germanische Bibliothek, Vierte Reihe. Heidelberg: 1962.


The Poetic Edda. Transl. Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: 1996.

Rígsþula: see Poetic Edda

Ögmundar þáttr dytts ok Gunnars helmings see Flateyjarbók

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[ back ] 1. This raises the question of how far back in time it makes sense to distinguish between genetic and typological comparisons. It could be argued that all humans, and thus all human cultures, are fundamentally related; therefore all cultural similarities are due to genetic relations and comparisons between them would then be classified as genetic. On the other hand, if a kind of “common” culture existed 100,000 years ago, and two human groups have developed in different directions since then, one would need to consider whether certain similarities should rather be attributed to other factors, such as common societal structures, common brain structures, etc., and therefore should be studied with a typological comparative method.

[ back ] 2. There is another problem here, which, for reasons of space, cannot be dealt with in any exhaustive way: namely the distinction between “different” religions. What is aimed at here is the very notion of “pre-Christian Scandinavian religion” (“Old Norse religion”, “the pre-Christian religion of the North”, or whichever designation is preferred): are we dealing with one religion, or with several, more or less similar worldviews? The question is of great importance, but is not the focus of this article (cf. DuBois 1999; Schjødt 2009, and many other recent works).

[ back ] 3. The literature on the source situation is immense, and good accounts on various types of sources can be read in, for instance, Beck, Ellmers, and Schier 1992 and Clover and Lindow 1985; a brief but excellent overview is given by Margaret Clunies Ross (1994: 20–33).

[ back ] 4. Benson Saler wrote back in 2001 that “Comparison is vital in certain of the activities of mind-brain. We regularly monitor the world and in doing so we creatively and selectively compare newly encountered phenomena to establish representational structures. Comparative processes are thus of crucial importance in cognition” (Saler 2001: 268), an assessment with which I fully agree (cf. also Lawson 2000 about universals in religious cognitive systems).

[ back ] 5. Good reasons for carrying our comparative studies in both general history and the history of religions have been discussed by Marcel Detienne (2008).

[ back ] 6. Evolutionism has also certainly been making a comeback from the end of the twentieth century, although not on the same theoretical basis as classical evolutionism, and certainly not at the expense of functional or structural perspectives.

[ back ] 7. And this issue may be the main problem with many of the comparisons carried out by Frazer and Eliade: they did not concern themselves overly much about such contexts.

[ back ] 8. This was most likely not the case with the Scandinavians living further south, and is thus not a part of the common heritage of the pagan Scandinavians. These southern Scandinavians would, on the other hand, probably have been much more strongly influenced by phenomena in the Germanic and the Slavonic worlds.

[ back ] 9. See also Lindow 2003 for the view that Óðinn’s shamanistic traits as they are found in Ynglinga saga ch. 7, which is the locus classicus when it comes to Óðinn’s characteristics, are essentially modeled on medieval magicians.

[ back ] 10. Dumézil’s famous “tripartite” structure should, however, be seen as an example of a paradigmatic structure, whereas his analysis of, for instance, the myth of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir in comparison with Indian and Roman material (Dumézil 1973) is clearly syntagmatic, as are probably the majority of his analyses.

[ back ] 11. This seems for instance to be the case with the theogony as related by Tacitus (Germania ch. 2) and Snorri Sturluson (Gylfaginning p. 11). See further the analysis in Schjødt forthcoming.

[ back ] 12. Thus, for instance, I agree with the criticism raised by Jan Assmann (2012) concerning the very status of the notion of “Axial Age”: it should not be seen as a certain period in world history (800–200 BCE), but rather as a change that potentially could happen at all times and in all cultures, when certain social and cultural conditions are present (for instance, writing as a medium).

[ back ] 13. Bellah actually operates with five stages, suggesting two after the Axial Age (Bellah 1964). These are, however, of no importance for the possibilities of reconstructing the pre-Christian religions of the North, and thus there is no reason to elaborate on them here. Interesting articles with further bibliographical information concerning Bellah can be read in Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 60 (2013).

[ back ] 14. Since this article was written, Simon Nygaard has published a very informative article in the Journal Temenos, analyzing the parallels between Hawaii and Scandinavia, using Bellah’s theoretical framework in much more detail than is done here. This article is strongly recommended for those interested in this approach (Nygaard 2016).

[ back ] 15. Bellah’s main source is Valerio Valeri, Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii (1985).

[ back ] 16. Valeri’s analyses (1985) are extremely interesting and can be warmly recommended. The ritual cycle is mainly treated on pp. 191–339.