- Myth and Theory
As explained in the Introduction: “The articles in this collection come from a conference entitled ‘Myth and Theory in the Old Norse World,’ which was organized by the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen in October 2009. The event was the fifth in a series of such conferences on Old Norse myths and mythology, which began in 2005” (p. 1). Eight years later the present miscellany appeared. Each conference had a theme. The participants in the Aberdeen meeting were asked: “What are the theoretical and methodological foundations on which we base our work, in our attempts to understand the Old Norse myths and mythological world, and the medieval sources in which we find expression of these?”
Like many trends in the humanities, the modern preoccupation with theory goes back to linguistics. There and in literary studies, theory has partially engulfed the field, and cognition has given way to the methodology of description. I am afraid that the influence of linguistic imperialism has produced multiple phonological and semantic metaphors and few tangible results. Hjelmslev’s idea of isomorphism did considerable damage even inside linguistics. Extending linguistic principles to myths is a dangerous idea, to say the least.
For example, Sebastian Cöllen investigated the role of Heimdallr, with the focus on Hyndluljóð. Terry Gunnell questioned the importance of Óðinn and Þórr in pagan Iceland. Rudolf Simek dealt with elves, and John Lindow with the female goddesses of Snorri’s Edda. What “theory” was needed for their studies? The authors examined the relevant texts, looked at the works of their predecessors, and drew certain conclusions that will interest all students of Scandinavian antiquities. Lindow even seems to have poked fun at the organizers. After a long discussion of the Ásynjur, he finished his essay with such words: “Thus we have here a theory of natural religion grafted on to a theory of euhemerism, and proof that theory is hardly a new invention” (p. 147). I agree: two theories for the price of one and a rich dessert. Below, obedient to the duties of a reviewer, I will devote some space to each of the works included. However, it is worth mentioning that the book already has two internal reviews: the editors’ Introduction (pp. 1–7) contains impartial but informative abstracts of each essay, while the last chapter is a serious critical “Summing up” by John McKinnell (pp. 225–49).
A few contributors took the message of the conference seriously and concentrated on theory as the foundation of mythological research. This holds especially for Karen [End Page 121] Bek-Pedersen (“Myth and Theory: Where is the Point?,” pp. 33–46). She realized the complexity of the problem and seemed to admit that, whatever object we may study, we cannot begin with a definition. She grappled with the following questions: What is theory (that is, what is the tool with which we hope to open the box?) and what is myth? To most, it would seem, theory is the trade name of an explanatory framework, but a satisfactory definition is a reward, rather than a prerequisite, for an all-sided investigation of the object at hand. Later, the contours may become blurred, and we correct the definition. For instance, before defining the egg we should already be able to distinguish it from other similar objects; as time goes on, borderline cases may baffle us, but such is the way of all research.
No one, be it J. Grimm, Rydberg, Frazer, Lévi-Strauss, or Dumézil, had any trouble recognizing myths when they saw them, and, when we decide to teach Greek or Scandinavian mythology, we too know exactly which texts to assign. Apparently, myths are narratives of the primordial supernatural forces, the creation of the world and societal institutions, in addition to all kinds of etiological plots. To save face, we sometimes add “in primitive societies” or “in the preliterate epoch.” The line between myths and heroic tales...