- More than Mythology: Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions by Ed. Catharina Raudvere and Jens Peter Schjødt
The nine essays collected here are based on the presentations of the keynote speakers at the 2008 conference of the Nordic Network for Research on Pre-Christian Religion. The Network, according to the editors, aims to facilitate close interdisciplinary contact between religious studies scholars and those other fields (literature, history, philology, archaeology, and ethnology are those they list in their introduction) that have their own long traditions in the study of Old Norse religion. The contributors to this volume bring a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives to the topic. [End Page 105] While Jens Peter Schjødt has some strong words for the “hyper-criticism” of “some modern philologists” (p. 269) in his concluding essay, we may take this volume as an indication that there is indeed some optimism in these parallel fields that one can actually say something about Pre-Christian religion in the North, and do so in a rigorous fashion. “Hyper-criticism” is not the only target, as many of these essays, and the volume as a whole, make a point of criticizing speculative and comparative excesses of past scholarship. The goal is a happy (but rigorous) medium, although the ideal presented varies from essay to essay.
The essays range from cases-in-point to more abstract discourses on theory and methodology, although most of them combine some methodological exposition with a particular test case for their approach. A comparative angle is prominent in most of these essays. Peter Jackson’s essay “The Merits and Limits of Comparative Philology: Old Norse Religious Vocabulary in a Long-Term Perspective” discusses the degree to which historical linguistics and comparative Indo-European research can shed light on Pre-Christian Norse religion, drawing his own comparative examples from Old Norse myth, Homeric formulas, and the hieratic poetry in Vedic and Avestan from the second and early first millennium BC. He is careful to emphasize, however, that he is not attempting to uncover some “timeless ideational structure” but instead is attempting to rediscover aspects of Germanic religion “at work elsewhere, in a no less contingent historical reality” (p. 62). Jackson is not alone in this volume in noting the parallel between linguistic reconstruction of lost forms and comparative research into prehistoric religion, and he reminds us that Dumézil himself recommended that historians of religions take their inspiration from historical linguistics. His approach is not a return to Dumézil, however, and in particular he attempts to transcend Dumézil’s “top-down” approach by means of a “bottom-up” approach founded on a “careful comparison and reconsideration of the linguistic data” (p. 53).
Thomas DuBois’s essay “Diets and Deities: Contrastive Livelihoods and Animal Symbolism in Nordic Pre-Christian Religions” involves a more immediate regional comparativism. Where his Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) explores the commonalities between Norse and Sámi religious cultures, here he explores one way in which Scandinavian and Sámi communities emphasized their particular ethnic identity in spite of shared economic and cultural phenomena. DuBois takes animal and food symbolism as his case-in-point, showing that, while the archaeological evidence demonstrates that wild animals were certainly important to Scandinavian communities, these communities drew their primary religious symbols from domestic animals, and while [End Page 106] Sámi communities depended more and more on domesticated species borrowed from the neighboring Scandinavians and Finns, they continued to emphasize animals traditionally important to them such as reindeer, fish, and bears as religious symbols. He suggests that there is a degree of mythic lag, in which a culture’s mythic systems fail to “keep apace of changing dietary staples and customs” (p. 66), but he also emphasizes these symbols as a way for communities to differentiate themselves from neighboring cultures.
With Olof Sundqvist’s essay “‘Religious Ruler Ideology’ in Pre-Christian Scandinavia” we move into comparative research within Scandinavia...