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.

Preface: Situating Old Norse Mythology in Comparative Contexts

Pernille Hermann, Stephen Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt

The essays in this volume are centrally concerned with an all-too-apparent reality about the study of pagan religions in Europe, namely, that the study of any mythology, especially archaic and only haphazardly recorded mythologies, requires careful assessment of sources and the attempt to reconstruct the “system” which is understood to be at its heart. For the mythology of pre-Christian Scandinavia, this perspective has long been understood to be not only highly desirable but also, importantly, highly available, more so than for many other European pagan traditions, mainly due to the substantial corpus of extraordinary texts from the Icelandic Middle Ages, above all, its eddas, sagas and skaldic poetry.

That we are in this fortunate situation has naturally had an overwhelmingly salubrious effect on the study of the pre-Christian era in Northern Europe. Yet at the same time, the study of Old Norse mythology has also, paradoxically, been in a position to pursue its materials in “splendid isolation”, to poach George Foster’s elegant political locution, to a greater degree than have many other comparable traditions despite some notable exceptions to this trend. [1] In partial response to this situation, the essays in this collection look to address the issue of Old Norse mythology as an area of inquiry that can benefit substantially from comparative scholarly inquiry, comparativisms of different sorts, that is, comparative with respect to theories as well as to tradition areas.

Comparativism and Old Norse mythology

Comparativism has played a changeable role within the study of Old Norse mythology. Not surprisingly, the changes have largely followed the overall tendencies within the Humanities. Thus, in the History of Religions in the first part of the nineteenth century, the so-called nature-myth school flourished, in which the idea was that in order to understand mythology as such, one should compare mythologies from all over the world. The romanticism of the nature-myth school was towards the end of the century replaced by different theories based on evolutionism which were by necessity still moving within a comparative paradigm. In the beginning of the twentieth century, this view changed, and particularism became the ruling paradigm, with the idea that each individual culture is unique and can only be grasped as a universe of its own.

Although many of the results concerning the “essence” of mythology, as proposed by the older generation of comparativists, are not accepted today, the very idea that in order to understand a certain phenomenon, we should compare various expressions of this phenomenon at different times and places, seems quite rational. This procedure, however, involves a significant number of problems, perhaps the most conspicuous one being the very identification of similar phenomena within different cultures, and thus decisions involving categorization and classification. So, for instance, one is faced with questions as fundamental as “what is a myth”? Is the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis to be categorized together with the story of Þórr fishing for the World Serpent in Gylfaginning? And if so, what is it that bind these two narratives together, i.e., what do they have in common? No matter what answers are suggested, it must be clear that there are huge differences between them—in content, in transmission, in style, in the attitudes towards the narratives from contemporary audiences, and so on.

A similarly difficult issue arises regarding the relation between “similarities” and “differences” when a comparative method is applied. “Anti-comparativists” have often maintained that in applying this method, only the similarities are focused upon, whereas there may be huge differences, too, between the cultures being analyzed. Although it is very often true that the similarities are the focus of comparative analyses, it is, however, not the rule that the differences are rejected or denied. Mostly, this focus is due to the questions raised: what is similar between religion X and religion Y, or, conversely what is different between religion X and religion Y? Both types of questions are, of course, perfectly legitimate, but they require different perspectives and analyses.

These problems, and many more that have to do with comparativism, have been discussed at great length by scholars in the Study of Religion, taking into consideration most of the theoretical issues involved. A similar debate, however, does not seem to be the case within the study of pre-Christian religions of the North. The early proponents of the comparative method, exemplified by Jacob Grimm (1835) and Wilhelm Mannhardt (1858), were influenced by the romanticism of their day, and source criticism, as we know it today, had not really begun.

A debate of this sort within early Northern European studies happened towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the main opponent of comparativism within the study of Old Norse mythology was the Norwegian Sophus Bugge, especially in his Studier over de nordiske Gude-og Heltesagns Oprindelse (1881–1889). Bugge had an immense impact on the scholarship within the field for a very long time. The idea was—and is—that almost all our sources for Old Norse mythology are subject to Christian influence in one way or another. The opposite view—i.e., maintaining that the content and structures in Snorri’s Edda, for instance, should be seen as anything truly pagan because of “superficial” similarities with indigenous or Indo-European mythologies—was rejected as pure romanticism and fantasy, and, in any event, not a “scientific” perspective. This position was the dominant one up to the 1950s or 60s, and has continued to play an important role to the present.

The “re-emergence” of comparative studies in scholarship on Old Norse mythology was mainly due to the analyses carried out by the great French linguist and historian of religion, Georges Dumézil (e.g., 1959). His idea that there were certain structural parallels between the various Indo-European mythologies, including that of Scandinavia, soon became rather popular among many students of religion, such as Jan de Vries (1955–1956) and E.O. Gabriel Turville-Petre (e.g., 1964), to mention only the most important. But many were very hesitant and just as many were very critical towards Dumézil, such as Folke Ström (e.g., 1961), Ray I. Page (1978-79) and a number of others. And one of the main criticisms was the very use of comparisons to reconstruct a pre-Christian mythology from the sources that are transmitted to us, reflecting specifically for Old Norse the ongoing discussions between advocates of comparativism and particularism in many of the human sciences.

Since the 1960s, however, this picture has been somewhat blurred, and it is far more difficult to pinpoint the various positions. Many scholars have accepted that there is a need for comparative perspectives in attempting to reconstruct the mythology of pre-Christian Scandinavia, combined, of course with traditional source criticism. The basic need for analogies when we try to create the lines of an entire mythology from scattered evidence in the sources—especially with all the source critical problems we face in applying the information we get from the medieval sources, such as Snorri’s works—is the main reason. Just as analogies have been used by archaeologists in placing individual finds correctly within the culture in question, there appears to be a growing awareness that without using analogies from other mythologies (mythologies from cultures where we are often better informed than is the case with pre-Christian Scandinavia), we would be equally incapable of correctly placing the individual pieces of information in the written sources into their correct positions. Even if there is still a debate between the historical source critics and those scholars who are more inclined to bring in anthropological parallels, the hard lines of this opposition have “softened” during the last three or four decades.

“Comparison” should, however, also be viewed in a broader perspective. First and foremost it is obvious that even within the Old Norse area itself there were differences in the religious and mythical worldviews. That means that myths told in one part of Scandinavia were not necessarily told in the same way in other parts, and thus even comparing two versions of a myth would constitute a comparative enterprise. Secondly, comparing various written versions of a myth with what may have constituted oral versions, or myths related in different literary genres or in different media should also be seen as comparative analyses. In this sense, the articles in this book are all working with different aspects of “comparativism”, some of which are not traditionally seen as such.

Accordingly, this collection is divided into several sections, organized by the individual essay’s distinguishing comparative feature, although these categorizations are far from absolute: there are articles that deal more or less exclusively with theoretical problems, such as the significance of the oral character of the sources, the problems with analogies, and so on, here gathered together under the label, Theoretical and Conceptual Comparisons. A different category of essays are those that are more concerned with specific texts and other empirical data, a category we have here divided into sub-groups, one of which is concerned with mainly “local” comparisons to cultures located geographically close to the Scandinavians, or even within the Scandinavian area itself, where such problems as “loans”, parallel developments, common “proto types”, and so on are discussed, what we have here labeled, Local and Neighboring Traditions. And then there are additional examples of comparisons going far beyond the immediate neighbors of Scandinavia, occasionally expanding well beyond them, what we here for the sake of convenience label Global Traditions.

Of course, no collection of essays, however diverse in their disciplinary orientations and however discursive in their treatments, could ever capture the full range of comparisons modern scholars would regard as necessary to locate Old Norse mythology properly within the study of archaic belief systems, but our hope is that these essays collectively move us closer to that goal, and individually suggest what is to be gained by such an approach.

Works cited

Bugge, Sophus. 1881–89. Studier over de nordiske Gude- og Heltesagns Oprindelse. Christiania.

Dumézil, Georges. 1959. Les dieux des Germains. Essai sur la formation de la religion scandinave. Mythes et religions, 39. Paris.

Egeler, Matthias. 2011. Walküren, Bodbs, Sirenen. Gedanken zur religionsgeschichtlichen Anbindung Nordwesteuropas an den mediterranen Raum. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, 71. Berlin & New York.

Grimm, Jacob. 1835. Deutsche Mythologie. Göttingen.

Mannhardt, Wilhelm. 1858. Germanische Mythen. Forschungen. Berlin.

Page, Raymond I. 1978-79. “Dumézil Revisited.” Saga-Book of the Viking Society 20: 49-69.

Ström, Folke. 1961. Nordisk hedendom. Tro och sed I förkristen tid. Lund.

Turville-Petre, E.O. Gabriel. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. History of Religion. London.

Vries, Jan de. 1956–1957. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte. 2nd rev. ed. Grundriss der germanischen. Philologie, 12. Berlin.


[ back ] 1. Works like Georges Dumézil’s 1959 Les Dieux des Germains. Essai sur la formation de la religion scandinave and Matthias Egeler’s recent Walküren, Bodbs, Sirenen. Gedanken zur religionsgeschichtlichen Anbindung Nordwesteuropas an den mediterranen Raum are more exceptions than the rule in the field.