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.

Methodological Challenges to the Study of Old Norse Myths: The Orality and Literacy Debate Reframed

Pernille Hermann, Aarhus University

Abstract: In pointing to a theme of importance for source evaluation, this essay gives an overview of the study of Old Norse myths from the perspective of the orality/literacy debate. It seeks to provide a picture of emerging tendencies and directions in scholarship. Taking off from the now criticized book-prose/free-prose theory, it discusses the relevance of different types of orality, the relationship between text and context, and between word and image, modes of communication, and performance.

Most scholars would agree that dealing with Old Norse myths and related narratives from the medieval Norse world requires a double focus—on the one hand, a focus on the oral dimension, that is, on the presumed oral foundations of the surviving texts, and on the other hand, a focus on the written dimension of the preserved material, that is, on the codicological and other empirical or material aspects of the texts. Apart from its critical importance in evaluating textual sources, the concept pair orality/literacy is also crucial for understanding the nature of the transmission and dissemination of myths in pre-Christian Scandinavia, as well as in the centuries following the introduction of Christianity. Thus, if we are to retrieve the bygone Norse mythological world, a world neither easily nor immediately accessible, the ongoing refinement of our understanding of the implications of the dyad “orality and literacy” is an indisputably important tool. The present article addresses both orality and literacy; specifically, with reference to recent studies addressing such issues as performance and other orality-focused approaches, I want to underscore that Old Norse myths and other Old Norse narratives with roots in oral tradition are inadequately understood if they are viewed exclusively within a framework that focuses on the verbal dimension of the myths. I highlight that it is not merely these verbal components, that is the oral/aural aspects strictly construed, but also such cognate activities as the performance aspects and pictorial representations of the materials that should be recognized as integral to the study of Old Norse mythology. Although structured in the form of an overview, this essay looks not in the first instance to provide a comprehensive or fine-grained review of scholarship about mythology or orality and literacy, but rather seeks to identify emerging tendencies and directions in the scholarly debate.

Source evaluation

Increasingly recognized as one of the ultimate source problems in our field, the relationship between orality and literacy is now understood to be much subtler than was once thought. Thus, John Lindow writes that challenges in the study of Old Norse mythology do not only relate to the fact that the myths were recorded in the Christian period by learned people, but also to “the problem of sources”, which as he explains “is more than chronological, for written media and culture may be presumed to differ in important ways from their oral counterparts” (Lindow 2005: 22). Attempts to provide an exhaustive treatment of studies of Old Norse myths, and their relationships to discussions of orality and literacy, would be too wide-ranging for at least two reasons: firstly, the study of Old Norse mythology is multi-disciplinary, and the myths are being investigated by scholars from a large number of academic fields, such as philology, folklore, history of religion, literature, anthropology, and archaeology (see, e.g., Schjødt 1988; Mitchell 2000). In the quotation above, John Lindow refers to “written media and culture”, and certainly media studies and cultural studies ought to be listed among those many other disciplines that can make a welcome contribution to the field (cf. Heslop forthcoming).

Secondly, debates about Old Norse myths, orality, and literacy overlap and converge with the study of genres. Old Norse myths and details about the mythology are transmitted to us by many avenues, most often as integral parts of the literary design of different genres, poetry as well as prose. The most important textual source material for Old Norse myths and mythology are the eddic poems, a group of mythological and legendary narratives that have been transmitted anonymously, and skaldic verses, which were mainly composed by Icelandic skalds. Of major importance among the prose texts is the Prose Edda, written ca. 1220 by the Icelandic chieftain and scholar Snorri Sturluson; also significant are the Icelandic sagas, among which the sub-class of the fornaldarsǫgur is most directly concerned with myth, and Gesta Danorum, written ca. 1200 by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. Each of these literary genres has its own unique research history with a number of different interests attached to it, and within each the orality/literacy debate has been accentuated to different degrees and with different foci, spreading the study of myths in multiple directions (see, e.g., Clunies Ross 1994: 11–41; Quinn 2000).

It is difficult to give a single unified answer to the question of the status of the orality/literacy debate in the aftermath of the otherwise long-lived book-prose/free-prose controversy. For more than a century, dominant voices strongly emphasized the debt of Old Norse textually-transmitted material to written culture and literacy. This was the case not only concerning saga-texts (see, e.g., Sigurður Nordal 1920, 1940; Andersson 2008: 7–8), but also studies of myths (e.g., Bugge 1881–1889); studies treating the Prose Edda in particular tended to highlight its written aspects, including a specific interest in the impact of the ideological milieu of writing and the influence from Christian and classical literature on Snorri’s representations of the myths (e.g., Holtsmark 1964; Dronke and Dronke 1977). Some scholars, of course, have insistently concerned themselves with the oral background of sagas and poems (e.g., Andersson 1964). Currently, as I will give examples of below, it would appear that there is an increased tendency to emphasize features connected to orality.

Oral-Derived texts

Since the myths and other mythological materials, represented in different genres, are transmitted primarily in medieval manuscripts, the fact that the mythic content has been transferred to writing in a cultural milieu of literacy cannot be ignored, an historical reality that prevents us from speaking of “pure orality”. John M. Foley’s term oral-derived text (Foley 1991a) is sometimes mentioned as suitable and appropriate for characterizing Old Norse texts (Gísli Sigurðsson 2003, 2004). The term implies that both the prose and poetry that transmit myths are written texts shaped by oral tradition. The term highlights the fact that although the mythic content is interwoven with, and mediated by, written textuality, we can assume that the texts recall their oral traditional character (Foley 1992). Features connected to the aesthetics of eddic poems, that is, the allusive nature of these forms of poetry, their often repetitive character, and the use of compositional units are just a few examples of their oral dimension (Harris 1979).

The study of oral-derived texts requires specific methodological consideration. One question traditionally subject to extensive debate is the dating and provenance of the eddic poems (see, e.g., Fidjestøl 1999). Before modern views of orality—with, for example, its emphasis on the lack of fixity of some oral narratives and poetic forms—began to influence seriously Old Norse studies, methodological concerns were not always adjusted to the material at hand, something which also had consequences for the results. In “Recent Works and Views on the Poetic Edda” from 1963, Lee M. Hollander wrote:

…we have made little progress in understanding these [eddic] poems, in dating them, in attributing them to a certain country and to certain authors. It must also be admitted that, though some progress has been made, these problems still for the most part elude us, as did the luscious fruit hanging over Tantalos, just when we seem to have them within our grasp. (Hollander 1963: 101)

The resigned conclusion of this passage about the elusory character of eddic poems may very well be an implication of a lack of methodological concern and of a textually-biased view of the texts. Implicit to the questions of age and provenance are text-bound ideas of “works” as finalized textual units, and ideas about the possibility of exact dating and arranging the poems in chronological order are organizing principles that are not readily adaptable to oral texts nor, most likely, to oral-derived texts.

At this point, it seems relatively safe to view Norse mythological literature as oral-derived. Admittedly, as regards the prose genres, especially the sagas, the debate about the oral background has been heated, as evidenced by the book-prose/free-prose controversy, but the discussion of an oral background has been less polemical where poetry is concerned. As regards eddic poetry, the oral origin of the genre has been generally accepted, even if the specific character of its oral background has not always been clarified, or dealt with explicitly. As late as 1985, Joseph Harris wrote that “In a sense eddic scholars have always ‘known’ that eddic poetry was oral poetry, but that knowledge was mostly an unspoken assumption based on the age of the verse and the introduction of writing in the North” (Harris 2005: 112, 1983).

If not with regard to their oral backgrounds then, disputes have nevertheless arisen concerning eddic poems and their types of orality, and whether these poems are best understood from notions of improvisation, composition-in-performance, or memorization, topics which continue to be debated (see Acker 1998). [3] This discussion has not been considered relevant to skaldic poetry, since the consensus view has been that this kind of poetry runs counter to the assumption that orally mediated texts could not have a fixed form. Not least the skaldic meter, dróttkvætt, prevented distortion of this type of poetry, which was likely to remain non-flexible (e.g. Gade 2000: 65). A matter of much discussion among modern scholars is whether complex and tightly composed skaldic poetry would have been understood directly by hearers, but the narrated world of, for instance, Gísla saga Súrssonar provides us with an example of how a fixed oral text could exist and of how exact repetition was possible in an oral context. In the saga, the protagonist’s sister Þórdís remembers and repeats a skaldic verse, a verse which is crucial for the narrative, since it initiates Gísli’s outlawry (Gísla saga Súrssonar ch. 18). Skaldic verse may demonstrate that more than one type of orality existed, that a stable text can be mediated orally (Jesch 2005, Harris 2010), and that, when dealing with literary genres that carry the mythic material, we must be careful not to establish distinctions too absolute between so-called oral and written features respectively.

But is it possible to penetrate beyond or behind the level of written textuality, that is, can we come to a better understanding of the oral dimension of the texts? In emphasizing how radically oral material is transformed during the process which transfers it to writing, one opinion is that the extant written texts actually do not allow us any access to the oral literature of the past. From this perspective, because of differences in media, the gap between the written text and oral material simply cannot be bridged. It is indeed a complicated matter, since the texts do not carry with them the extra-textual context to which any oral utterance is metonymically related. Accordingly, in this view, the challenge consists of two problems: we have neither access to the oral forms nor to their contexts.

It would seem, however, as though there are alternative perspectives, which are not quite so despondent, for some studies have convincingly shown that it is possible to picture the material’s oral dimensions and contexts (Danielsson 2002). Lars Lönnroth (1971, 1978, and 2009) has consistently pointed to performance aspects of poetry and saga, and given examples of the fact that poems and narratives are not comprised solely of verbal expressions or simply as silent letters on the page. Stephen Mitchell (1991, 2001, and 2003) has turned our attention to performance aspects of the literary forms and has thus enhanced our understanding of saga and poetry in oral contexts. With a focus on performance and inspired by notions such as “thick description”, “grammar of context”, and “ethnopoetics”, Mitchell has shown that the Norse textual materials actually provide us with possibilities of reaching a deeper contextual understanding of poetry and narrative in Norse culture (2001; see also Tangherlini 2003: 143–49). Terry Gunnell’s contribution to the study of dialogical eddic poems composed in the ljóðaháttr meter is another investigation of major importance that elucidates the performance-dimension of eddic poetry (Gunnell 1995a, 1995b, 2013). In focusing on the theatrical and dramatic aspects of these poems, his studies essentially move the poems under discussion from the genre of poetry to the genre of drama, seriously calling for a re-evaluation of our methodological concerns. More recently, Stefanie Würth has dealt with the highly complicated question of performance in connection with skaldic poetry, both performance as recitation on stage and performance as a material act of writing (Würth 2007). Listing questions of performance among the approaches relevant for the study of myths means that the poems’ extra-textual dimensions become foci of interest, as do their status as multi-dimensional and multi-sensory experiences.


One of the major tasks of scholarship has been the reconstruction of this past Norse world’s myths and mythology from representations in the form of lettered expressions in primarily medieval manuscripts. Concerning the texts as doorways to orality and underscoring the aspect of reconstruction, Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl write in their treatment of the topic:

The medievalist is in any case necessarily bound first to the text, and only from that platform can he or she attempt to ascend to any oral milieu or specifically to informed speculation on the performances from which, logically, all our oral-derived texts originate. Medieval texts themselves vary greatly in their immanent power to reveal performance origins, but for us context, performance, and audience are always more or less reconstructions and the texts on which they are based, more or less, contested sites. (Harris and Reichl 2012: 144)

Parallel with an increased awareness of “performance” and “living orality”, it becomes relevant not merely to reconstruct the myths themselves, but also to recontextualize them. Thus, in acknowledging that in an oral situation, meaning emerges as much from the context as from the text itself, it becomes increasingly important to scrutinize in which ways it is possible to recontextualize the myths.

The need for recontextualization confirms that the study of Old Norse mythology cannot be isolated from the study of Old Norse literature more generally. Since all the corners of the medieval Norse textual corpus—and, as is increasingly recognized, also post-medieval sources—offer highly relevant information for coming to grips with the myth-in-context, the study of myth can hardly be limited to include only poems and narratives that deal directly with gods and a sacred world. That the textual source material goes far beyond a restricted pool of mythic texts understood in a narrow sense implies that new results from the discipline of literature and philology are highly relevant for studies in Old Norse mythology.

New openings to the study of Norse myths partly come from study of folklore. But it seems to be the case that new approaches and heuristic engagement with methods and theories within other core disciplines, such as literature and philology, can also provide new insights that are relevant for our encounters with myth and its context. In this regard, Stephen Mitchell has suggested that a balanced view, where different methodologies and disciplines such as folklore and philology can meet, is preferable: “how do we take advantage of these advances while at the same time resisting the temptation to ignore what can be gained by old-fashioned philology and the study of mythology?” (Mitchell 2000, 2001: 169).

Literary and philological studies have not settled how the highly ambiguous saga-texts should be read and how the past world they describe should be accessed. The great complexity of this kind of medieval manuscript-based literature, and the many temporal and ideological layers it implies, was recognized by Preben Meulengracht Sørensen when he wrote:

The debate about how the texts should be read has exhausted itself without any new consensus having emerged. The gap that historical investigation left when it gave up on the sagas as useable sources, literary scholarship has as yet been unable to fill, apparently because the available hermeneutic strategies are inadequate. (Meulengracht Sørensen 1993: 149)

However, some new pathways have been laid out (see Jochens 1993), implying that dichotomizing tendencies that have otherwise been dominant, say, between genres like history and fiction (Clunies Ross 1998; Hermann 2010) or between pagan traits and Christian influence (Lönnroth 1969; Vésteinn Ólason 1998), are not as firm as they may appear. For instance, Jürg Glauser has proposed that less focus on genre distinctions, that is, on textual classification and chronology, as well as an increased focus on alternative “concepts of text” (Glauser 2000a, 2007) may break down classifications that otherwise have guided our understanding of the source value of the texts. Studies in saga-texts increasingly turn attention to the number of ways in which these texts are discursively indebted to cultural, historical, and ideological forces at the time of each text witness, as well as to the reception of texts (Quinn and Lethbridge 2010). In having other foci than those literary approaches that emphasize author, literary borrowings, and the question of origins, future studies that follow up on such pathways may very likely bring to light new aspects of the textual material, aspects that will also inspire the study of myths in context.

It should be noted as well that similar to those scholars whose prevailing interest concerns orality (e.g. Gísli Sigurðsson 2004), textually-orientated scholars also work with new concepts of text, speaking not of the fluid character of oral narratives but of “mouvance” and of the “mobility of the medieval text” (see Glauser 2000a: 138, 2007: 16; and Driscoll 2010: 92). Thus, on both sides, there is an awareness of what is key to our understanding of the myths and their transmission, as well as of what is highly relevant for source evaluation, namely the instability of the text, both oral and written, over time. Such concepts of text indeed lay the ground for perceiving myths and other narratives as processes rather than as finalized units, that is, as context-dependent and changeable rather than as fixed and autonomous forms.

One of the areas of study that has the potential to pose new light on Norse mythology is the investigation of the function of memory in oral as well as in written cultures (Glauser 2000b, 2007; Mitchell 2013). In transitional cultures between orality and writing, memory functions as a vital storage room for knowledge of the past, making memory an important context for the mythology. Studies in memory can show, firstly, how personal and collective memories function and, secondly, how they were in dialogue with and had an impact on narratives and poems, in terms of both content and structure. One relevant question concerns the extent to which methods of memory and images of memory influenced the myths. It is commonly recognized that memory is structured, for example, by spatial and visual means; both spaces and visually striking images are conspicuously present in the mythology and may function as points of intersection between myths and memory (Bergsveinn Birgisson 2010; Hermann 2014, 2015).

Myth performance

The tendency to focus on issues of performance and thus on the multidimensionality of orality has encouraged some scholars, whether implicitly or explicitly, to juxtapose the oral and the written, i.e., to conclude that writing is what the oral performance is not: that it communicates solely with the written word on the page and therefore offers a one-dimensional experience (see e.g. Gunnell 2006: 238). Such opinions support a non-neutral dichotomy between the oral and the written, a dichotomy that reinforces a difference between, on the one hand (and negatively), dead letters on the page and, on the other hand (and positively), living performances.

In accordance with such a valorizing tendency and with regard to the transfer of oral forms to writing, Ruth Finnegan maintains: “Transferring a multi-faceted en-staged enactment into the simplex medium of writing may make a stab at capturing one dimension—writable words—but passes by those other elements in which it lives” (Finnegan 2005: 173). Finnegan, however, modifies and nuances this widespread view, which reduces writing to a one-dimensional form of communication. She writes that “a growing number of crosscultural [sic] studies of literacy have been challenging this ethnocentric myth to bring out the multi-modality and materiality of writing” (2005: 173).

It is indeed relevant and important to investigate and come to a better understanding of the performance of mythic poems and narratives in oral contexts; that is, to emphasize all the nonverbal features as well as the social and cultural codes implied in oral performances, which is in fact the direction that scholarship takes. Only when doing that can we do justice to oral myths. But when investigating the transmission of myths in pre-Christian Scandinavia, as well as in the centuries after Christianity was formally introduced in that region, it becomes equally relevant to shed light on the performance of mythic poems and narratives in their written contexts.

The transfer of myths to writing happened in the Christian period and such activity goes hand in hand with the deprivation of the myths of their sacredness; thus at one and the same time it removes the myths from the oral medium and from their standing in a pre-Christian worldview. But despite the fact that when committed to writing myths are, strictly speaking, moved into a sphere of reception rather than one of belief, what happens to the myths over time on a media-related and communicative level is highly important, not least for source evaluation. Here it is also relevant to emphasize that myths cannot be reduced to narratives that merely explain “religious usage” (Clunies Ross 1994: 14). Rather they should be understood in a broader sense as expressions “of social and cultural concerns” (Clunies Ross 1994: 15), implying also what has increasingly been argued, namely, that Norse myths most likely continued to exist as cognitive tools well into the Christian period (e.g. Clunies Ross 1998; Lindow 1995).

There are indeed considerable differences between writing and the spoken word, but writing does not simply imply reduction and narrowing down of communicative levels. In the medieval period written texts could be an integral part of oral performances (Coleman 1996), in the sense that texts were not read silently by the individual but read aloud for an audience, and thus communicated and received aurally in a living context (e.g. Hermann Pálsson 1962; Mundal 2010).

In the medieval Norse world, written texts were in the beginning closely connected to clerical milieus. The following passage from Jóns saga ins helga (composed in the beginning of the thirteenth century) relates how a teacher in the cathedral school at Hólar in Iceland followed common church practice in relying on the (religious) book when communicating orally to his audience:

Ok ávallt er hann prédikaði fyrir fólkinu, þá lét hann liggja bók fyrir sér ok tók þar af slíkt er hann talaði fyrir fólkinu, ok gerði hann þetta mest af forsjá ok lítillæti, at þar hann var ungr at aldri þótti þeim meira um vert er til hlýddu at þeir sæi þat at hann tók sínar kenningar af helgum bókum en eigi af einu saman brjóstviti. (Jóns saga ins helga pp. 205–06)

(And ever when he was preaching before the people, he had a book lying before him, and took therefrom what he spoke to the people, and he did this most out of prudence and humility, because as he was young in years those that listened might lay more store by it, when they saw that he took what he taught out of holy books and not out of his own natural knowledge or breast-wit. (p. 552))

Books with non-ecclesiastical content were also read aloud in front of audiences. It has long been emphasized, and it is generally accepted, that this was the case for saga-texts; and it has been argued as well that eddic poems were intended to be read out loud and possibly even to be acted dramatically (Lönnroth 1979; Mitchell 1991; Gunnell 1995a, 1995b; Mundal 2010). This argument shows that when transferred to written form, the narrative material was potentially realized and received in a context that retained dimensions that otherwise confine themselves to oral situations. This observation thus locates the written texts in multi-media and multidimensional situations, where books and visible signs on the page would have been accompanied by such features as voice and bodily orientation.

In Old Norse studies, the so-called “multi-modality” of writing referred to in the quotation above by Ruth Finnegan has mostly been emphasized by scholars inspired by New Philology (see e.g. Glauser 2000a; Driscoll 2010). Such studies, looking at texts in their materiality as books and manuscripts and investigating the relationship between text and nonverbal features displayed in the manuscript, reveal how manuscripts were arenas for communication (Glauser 2007). When included in manuscripts, myths are not limited to communication through the written word, but also through such nonverbal visual features as the layout of the page, typographic arrangement, and the graphic features of the manuscript page, all of which assist in the communication of the written word (Johansson 2005; Vésteinn Ólason 2010).

Words and images

No medium exists in a vacuum. Before writing in alphabetic literacy was available, the spoken word, runic inscription, artifacts, pictures, and ritual and bodily performances existed as parallel media, equally responsible for the mediation and transmission of myths. Like poems and narratives, pictures on physical objects (for instance, stones and buildings) transmitted scenes from myths and legend. Skaldic verse, especially in the form of ekphrasis, reveals that pictorial and oral performance were engaged in dialogue, pointing to the fact that image and orally-delivered words constituted not only parallel media, but also interrelated media.

Figure 1. The dialogue between Gangleri and Hár, Jafnhár, and Þriði. Uppsala University Library, MS DG 11.

In the Prose Edda, this dialogue constitutes the frame within which the mythology is revealed in a question-answer format, a form that imitates oral communication. The image that visually depicts this situation captures an oral situation which is underscored by the figures’ bodily orientation, open mouths, and gestures. The æsir are neatly drawn and are depicted in great detail as rich and exotic kings in correspondence with what is being told in the narrative of Gylfaginning, where they are euhemerized as (human) kings from Troy who have migrated to the North. The Gangleri figure, in contrast, is drawn more simply and correspondingly dressed in rustic clothing. But both dialogue partners, the set of king/gods and Gangleri, have carefully depicted hand gestures, frozen in different movements (Glauser 2009: 298). It is possible that the gestures correspond to rules of figuration, like those we see in Old Norse manuscripts containing vernacular translations of Christian literature, where gestures seem to be drawn according to standards of figurative meaning in medieval clerical culture. But it is certain that the gestures serve to emphasize that the picture has as its theme an oral situation, and in supporting the narrative’s form and content, this image is in dialogue with the text of the manuscript.

Hand gestures represent a means of expression alternative to writing (Schmitt 1991). More than once we find representations of gestures in the margin of Codex Upsaliensis (see e.g. Grape 1962), opposing the view that the written text was isolated from other media-related strategies. In the Upsaliensis manuscript, the text of the Edda is accompanied by a list of skalds (Skáldatal), a genealogy of the Icelandic Sturlunga family, and a list of law-speakers. These inserted texts all refer to experts of the Old Norse world, experts who were capable of transmitting oral myths and other oral information (skalds and law-speakers) and to lore and structural principles (genealogies and the principle of listing) deriving from orality. On the page where the list of skalds ends (Figure 2), three figures are drawn, two of which display an emphasis on their hand gestures, indicating visually once again the role of orality.

Figure 2. Figures with hand gestures. Uppsala University Library, MS DG 11.

We cannot take for granted that the drawings were made contemporaneously with the text—they may very well be later additions—nor can we be sure that they refer directly to the text’s content (cf. Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir 2009); however, it seems as if the drawings not only support the text’s content, but also react to it, and it should be noted that one figure is a woman, despite the fact that the listed skalds are all males.

Drawings like these imply the possibility that in the margin of the text, outside of the text itself, recipients found a place for commenting on the text, its content, and its media. As claimed by Walter Ong, amongst others, writing separates narrator and audience and establishes a situation where narratives are not created in the actual oral communication situation, having narrator and audience in their bodily presence as simultaneous participants (Ong 1982). Whereas the oral speaker experiences the audience in front of him, the writer’s audience is farther away in time and space, or, laconically phrased: with writing, distance replaces proximity. However, speaker indications such as those in Codex Regius and the illustrations in the margin of the texts (as in Codex Upsaliensis) show that, despite time and distance, recipients acted towards the written texts, providing evidence that manuscripts, including those containing myths and referring to mythic experts, acted as arenas for communication.

Diachronic and synchronic approaches

Despite the fact that the interplay between orality and literacy is expressed in multiple ways, scholarly debates have often concentrated on the question of the oral background and the oral prehistory of the Norse texts, and as a consequence the orality/literacy pair has predominantly been conceived diachronically, i.e., first there was orality, then writing. This diachronically orientated perspective has been slowly changing, and it is now more frequently being questioned (Ranković, Melve, and Mundal 2010; Danielsson 2002). It seems appropriate that the diachronic perspective would have been paramount at a time when scholarly interest focused on the myths’ origins and their oldest forms. One of the major recent achievements, a result of the renewed focus on orality and the nature of oral forms, has been an enhanced awareness of the problems that are connected with the search for so-called original and authentic myths in their oldest forms. Emphasizing the fact that multiple versions of an oral text can have existed, as well as underscoring the non-fixity and non-hierarchical organization of oral texts, Gísli Sigurðsson has written the following about the narrative materials that form the backbone of the myths in the Prose Edda:

We need hardly be surprised if there is not always complete agreement between the versions of stories reflected in prose and verse […] It would be closer to the mark to assume that at any given time there would have been various versions of the story in circulation, without any of them precluding any other. (Gísli Sigurðsson 2004: 16)

This comment points to the existence of myth multiforms. Obviously, prose and poetry represented the myths differently. Not only would allusive poetry have relied to a higher extent than prose on foreknowledge, that is, on actively participating recipients who shared a collective memory of the mythic tradition, but also within each genre, differences would have existed. This is seen, for instance, in comparing the two existing prose versions of Baldr’s death, namely Snorri’s and Saxo’s, in the Edda and the Gesta Danorum respectively. Whereas the first represents the myth in the context of a mythography, the latter incorporated it in a historiography. The ideologies of the writers, as well as their thematic and stylistic choices, actually resulted in two different literary treatments of the same myth (e.g., Clunies Ross 1992).

To that crucial fact, which is indeed relevant for our view on the myths, we need to bear in mind that, at any given time, these myths would have been transmitted and exchanged in multiple media, the oral and the pictorial as well as—with the introduction of alphabetic literacy—the written. The added media layer of literacy introduced a higher level of complexity to the myths and their transmission and, as the image shows, they were debated and discussed. Undoubtedly, the transfer of mythic content between genres and between media shaped the material in each its own way, in principle resulting in a number of equally “authentic” myths. Consequently, we are currently in a place where tracing things like the original myth, its oldest form, and its original medium prove highly problematic. This conclusion implies that we need to rethink the very concept of text (oral as well as written), which has obvious and profound consequences for the evaluation of these texts as sources. Furthermore, when we shelve the search for original forms, we need not insert the orality/literacy pair in a diachronic perspective, and attention can be drawn to alternative ways for the pair to meet, paving the way for synchronically orientated studies that investigate the implications of mythic content and its transmission in parallel oral and literary media—and non-verbal media, as well.

To sum up the key points of these remarks very briefly: elements of the orality/literacy debate that have a bearing on the study of Old Norse myths are concerned with performance and myths’ non-verbal aspects, as well as the move away from a diachronic perspective on the orality/literacy pair. Other related questions, such as the textual editing and staging of the myths and of oral performances, are, of course, highly relevant as well. The orality/literacy pair interacts in a number of ways in the transitional world that created the myths, and only continued investigation of these different meetings across time and space and their implications can bring us to a position more fruitful and desirable than that of Tantalos.

Works Cited

Primary sources

Gesta Danorum

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes. Ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen and transl. Peter Fisher. Oxford: 2015.

Jóns saga ins helga

Íslenzk fornrit, 15 (I:2). Ed. Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Ólafur Halldórsson, and Peter Foote. Reykjavík: 2003. Pp. 173-316.


Origines Islandicae. Vol. 1. Transl. Guðbrandur Vigfusson and F. York Powell. Oxford: 1905.

Gísla saga Súrssonar

Íslenzk fornrit, 6. Ed. Björn K. Þórólfsson and Guðni Jónsson. Reykjavík: 1943. Pp. 1-118.

Prose Edda

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

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Skáldskaparmál 1: Introduction, Text and Notes. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: 1998.

Secondary Sources

Acker, Paul. 1998. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. New York.

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[ back ] 1. Entries to thorough reviews of the book-prose/free-prose debate can be found in Andersson 1964 and Gísli Sigurðsson 2004: 17–50.

[ back ] 2. Such studies are inspired by, e.g., Finnegan 1992; Foley 1991a; and Bauman 1986.

[ back ] 3. As summarized by Paul Acker, this debate is inextricably connected with, and highly relevant for, source evaluation, but unfortunately the biased points of view of scholars and their occasionally nationalistic tendencies have sometimes overshadowed fair source criticism (Acker 1998).

[ back ] 4. See also The Retrospective Methods Network newsletters (RMN) edited by Frog et al. and published by the Folklore Studies/Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki (e.g. Lukin, Frog, and Katajamäki 2013).

[ back ] 5. W. I. Miller’s 1990 study that includes the Norse legal texts is one example, outside of the study of myths, where texts are invoked as context (1990).

[ back ] 6. See especially Jürg Glauser (2013) where Codex Upsaliensis’ images and texts, and their interactions, are treated in great detail and with special attention to the theoretical implications of the text-image relationships.

[ back ] 7. Michael Camille has stressed the value of investigating the interplay between and commenting of several different modes and media, i.e., image and verbal forms (Camille 1992).