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  • In Prayer and Laughter: Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature and Culture by Anatoly Liberman
  • Kirsten Wolf
In Prayer and Laughter: Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature and Culture. By Anatoly Liberman. Moscow: Paleograph Press, 2016. Pp. 588. $68.

This very substantial volume contains a selection of articles and book chapters representative of Anatoly Liberman’s scholarly oeuvre. Several of the contributions have appeared in journals and collections, but, as noted by Liberman, “all of them have been expanded and edited, and a few rewritten from top to bottom” (p. 20). Primarily for this reason, I made the decision to have it reviewed in JEGP, which typically does not include reviews of previously published work. Moreover, many of Liberman’s articles have appeared in Festschriften, which are easy to miss when doing a bibliographical search on a particular topic. There is no way that a two thousand-word review can do justice to five hundred pages packed with information, never mind to the author, who is truly an icon in our field. The best I can do is to touch on some of the topics covered in the volume and offer a few comments.

In his introduction, “My Path to and around Mythology,” Liberman provides a survey of his long scholarly career, which took him from Leningrad to Minneapolis, and explains the contents of the volume: “This book is about the beliefs and attitudes of the Medieval Scandinavians and to a lesser degree of the Anglo-Saxons” (p. 13). He points out that the book “is not a manual, like Jan de Vries’s, Åke Ström’s, or E.O.C. Turville-Petre’s, but someone who will read it from cover to cover, will get a good idea of the most vital aspects of Scandinavian mythology: the changing faces of Óðinn, the place of Loki in the northern pantheon, the development of the Baldr cult, some less known characteristics of Þórr, the role of eddic animals, and belief in supernatural creatures of all kinds.” (pp. 18–19).

The articles are divided into three parts. Part one, which makes up approximately two-thirds of the volume, is entitled “Deities and Destiny.” It is prefaced by three quotes, one of which is by M. I. Steblin-Kamenskij, Liberman’s famous mentor: “[M]yth is a narrative that is held to be true by those who create and preserve it, no matter how untrue to reality it may seem. Why is myth, so patently untrue, held to be true?” (p. 11). This particular quote may be said to be Liberman’s guiding principle behind the eleven chapters that comprise Part One. In these chapters, he analyzes the many myths concerning Óðinn, including the stories about his son Víðarr and the tales about bersekrs; Þórr, including a discussion of the name and meaning of his pig and his servant Þjalfi; Loki, including an analysis of his relation to Útgarðaloki; Baldr, including an examination of his relationship to Hǫðr and Hǫðr’s identity; and the obscure Swedish god Lytir. In the process, Liberman tackles hotly debated myths, such as the four stanzas in Hávamál about Óðinn on a tree, the tale in Snorri’s Edda about Loki’s bizarre attempt to make Skaði laugh after the killing of her father, and the story in the Eddas and Saxo’s Gesta Danorum about the killing of Baldr. He critically surveys the scholarly works that have been written on the various gods and the myths surrounding them and, resorting often to etymology, weeds out scholarly contributions that are dubious, outright wrong, or lead nowhere in an attempt to get to the root of a certain god or myth. Yet he acknowledges that “the Stammbaum, the sought-for ideal, is a utopia in both comparative linguistics and comparative mythology. Myths often diverged from an epicenter, but they also converged, influenced one another, or coexisted as independent entities. We reconstruct straight lines where there were mainly zigzags” (p. 175). Liberman does not presume to find answers to all questions and always knows when...


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