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.

Series Foreword

As he planned his famous study of the living tradition of oral epic singing in the Balkans in the 1930s, the prominent Harvard Classicist, Milman Parry, signaled the significance that the Old Norse field held in his mind when he noted that the results of his investigations would be of importance, not only for the study of Greek and South Slavic epic, but also for such early poetries as Anglo-Saxon, French, and Norse. [1] Thus, key to Parry’s approach to the study of Homeric Greek tradition—as both that comment and, of course, the entirety of his Yugoslavian fieldwork indicate—was comparativism, or as he knew it, the méthode comparative. [2] That the present collection of essays specifically focusing on Old Norse mythology in a comparative perspective should appear in a publication series of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature might then be deemed especially appropriate.

Furthermore, Harvard’s engagement with the study of Scandinavian history, culture, and literature has deep roots, a fact one can infer from its acquisition on January 14, 1766, soon after the destructive fire of the college library in 1764, of A Compendious History of the Goths, Svvedes & Vandals, and Other Northern Nations, the 1658 English translation of Olaus Magnus’ 1555 ethnography of the Nordic world. And Harvard was one of the first, if not the first, institution in the New World to offer instruction in Old Norse—it is said that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow taught it in University Hall shortly after his 1835–1836 stay in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Of her visit to the Harvard College library in December of 1849, the famous Swedish writer, and feminist activist, Fredrika Bremer commented,

I one day lately visited the several buildings of the university and the library. In the latter I was surprised to find one portion of the Swedish literature not badly represented here. This is owing to the poet, Professor Longfellow, who having himself traveled in Sweden, sent hither these books. He has also written about Sweden, and has translated several of Tegnér’s poems. I found also the Eddas among the Swedish books.

To which she adds—wryly and much bemused by the intensity of the young men’s interest, one senses—speaking about her childhood friend and visiting legal scholar, Professor Pehr Bergfalk,

A half-century later, massively supplementing Harvard’s growing Nordic collection, the perspicacious acquisition of the personal library of the German scholar, Konrad von Maurer, took place, a purchase that brought some 10,000 titles to the library, as well as, to paraphrase the bill of lading, a trunkful of Icelandic manuscripts. [
4] The university’s continuing commitment to Scandinavian as a vital area of humanities research has not wavered greatly over the decades; indeed, the essays in the current volume, Comparative Perspectives on Old Norse Mythology, are an indication of this ongoing dedication, as most of them were presented at the Aarhus Old Norse Mythology Conference held at Harvard University in the autumn of 2013.

—David Elmer, Casey Dué, Gregory Nagy and Stephen Mitchell


[ back ] 1. See the complete text in Stephen A. Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” in Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd ed. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, 24. Cambridge, MA, 2000, p. ix. On the relevance of Parry’s prediction for Old Norse studies, see, for example, the essay by Hermann in the current volume.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Mitchell and Nagy, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” xvii–xviii.

[ back ] 3. Fredrika Bremer, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America. Transl. by Mary Howitt of Hemmen i den Nya verlden. New York: 1853. I: 134.

[ back ] 4. Some of these manuscripts formed part of the exhibit of Icelandic manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library, curated by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Marie Curie Research Fellow at Harvard University and The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavík, held in conjunction with the conference, Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives, in 2013.