- News from Other Worlds: Studies in Nordic Folklore, Mythology and Culture ed. by Timothy R. Tangherlini and Merrill Kaplan
This is a Festschrift presented in honor of John Lindow on his sixty-fifth birthday. Familiar to most students of early Scandinavian culture, Lindow has been a faculty member of the eminent Scandinavian Department at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1972. The great variety of topics addressed by the celebrant’s friends and colleagues is suggestive of the influence, breadth, and depth of Lindow’s scholarly pursuits. It also presents a challenge to a reviewer who cannot possibly feel at home in all of the areas covered by the eighteen contributions. I should therefore stress from the start that my scholarly prudence prevents me from aspiring to a fair treatment of all essays in this book, not because they do not deserve it, but because I am not suited for that undertaking. Old Norse and Nordic religion and mythology have been major topics in Lindow’s research through the years, and it is especially the essays indicating advancement in this field of study that will concern me here.
The book is divided into two major parts, a first section on “Studies in Old Norse and Nordic Mythology” and a second section on “Studies in Folklore, Belief and Culture.” The editors have no doubt struggled to classify the essays according to some reasonable principle of division, but since this principle is apparently a rather arbitrary, secondhand construct, certain distortions were probably unavoidable. A few essays in the first section seem more resonant with the ones in the second, and vice versa. I would, for instance, have preferred to see Úlfar Bragason’s interesting study of the second-generation American scholar Rasmus Bjørn Anderson’s (1846–1936) boosting of Norwegian identity in the book America Not Discovered by Columbus as part of the same section as Kirsten Thisted’s essay on contemporary Greenlanders’ nation-building strategies. The same goes for Kendra Willson’s essay on the genre of national epic (now in the first section), which likewise converses nicely with essays in the second part on modern cultural identities and the celebration of cultural heritage (not least, Valdimar Tr. Hafstein’s piece on UNESCO’s concept of intangible heritage). This being said, I recognize some essays in the first section as particularly noteworthy contributions to the study of Old Norse religion and society.
Margaret Clunies Ross opens the first section with a theoretically decisive piece on the enigmatic compound noun reginnaglar. She shows that the interpretation of the twice-recorded noun may enrich our understanding of how Christian and pre-Christian practices fed into each other during the early Christian period. Whereas the first reference to reginnaglar (in [End Page 233] a stanza from the skald Þórarinn lofunga’s Glælognskviða—a poem quoted in Snorri’s Óláfs saga helga) concerns parts of a wooden structure associated with the cult of St. Ólafr’s relics in Trondheim, the second reference concerns insertions in the high-seat pillars sacred to Þórr inside the god’s sanctuary (or hof) according to a description in Eyrbyggja saga. Clunies Ross argues convincingly against the widespread opinion that depictions of paganism in Old Norse texts (especially the sagas) should be reduced to a medieval Icelandic interpretatio christiana of the pre-Christian past, opting instead for a re-adaptation of genuinely pre-Christian features into early Christian cults based on certain recognizable similarities of purpose.
Former Lindow student Merrill Kaplan’s “Once More on the Mistletoe” is, in my view, the most perceptive and innovative of all the essays in this book. Kaplan turns her attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in Snorri’s description of the seemingly harmless mistletoe in his rendition of the Baldr myth, namely the fact that the goddess Frigg considers the mistletoe too young (not too small) to have an oath demanded. Through her clever interrogation of Icelandic medieval sources (especially the legal document Grágás) mentioning the interdiction...