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  • In Prayer and Laughter: Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature, and Culture by Anatoly Liberman
  • Marc Pierce
Anatoly Liberman. In Prayer and Laughter: Essays on Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic Mythology, Literature, and Culture. Moscow: Paleograph Press, 2016. Pp. 588.

Anatoly Liberman is one of the most important Germanic linguists/philologists/mythologists/literary scholars of the past several decades, with a truly impressive body of work under his belt. After beginning his career in the 1960s with work on historical English phonology—his 1965 doctoral dissertation addressed open syllable lengthening in Middle English—he switched his focus to Scandinavian Studies, producing the equivalent of a Habilitationsschrift on Icelandic prosody and then later a book on Scandinavian accentology. Today he is perhaps best known for his work on etymology, which to date includes numerous articles, an introductory textbook, a book-length introduction to a new etymological dictionary of English, and a very readable and engaging blog on the Oxford University Press website ( But he has also published extensively on folklore and mythology, and has prepared translations and/or editions of literary works and of the work of earlier scholars like N. S. Trubetzkoy and Stefán Einarsson, showing a breadth of research interests that is rarely seen among scholars today. The volume under consideration here collects a number of his earlier papers on Germanic mythology, culture, and literature, with a dollop of linguistics; the papers focus on Scandinavian topics, but draw on material from other areas, including Slavic, Italic, and other branches of Germanic, as necessary. All of the papers have been revised to one extent or another, and some quite considerably (he notes that the paper on Baldr, for instance, is about one-third larger than the original version). There are twenty-one papers in the volume, which is divided into [End Page 299] three sections: “Deities and Destiny,” “Between Heaven and Earth,” and “On the Earth.” The first section is the longest, taking up just over half the book. There is also a very readable introductory essay and the usual scholarly apparatus at the end of the book (references, notes, and various indices). A full treatment of this rich and detailed work is precluded by the limitations of this forum; in what follows, I therefore briefly discuss one or two papers from each section, in order to give a snapshot of the volume, and then offer a more general assessment of the work as a whole.

Section 1, “Deities and Destiny,” contains eleven papers of considerably varying length. The chapter on “Óðinn’s Path to Greatness” is over sixty pages long, while the chapter on “The Enigmatic God Lyttr” is only eight. The first chapter considered here is chapter 3, “Óðinn’s Berserks in Myth and Human Berserks in Reality” (pp. 101–12), which covers topics like the evidence for berserks, their possible religious significance, and what the word actually means. The second is chapter 7, “Darkness Engulfs Baldr” (pp. 197–260), which presents a wide-ranging survey of the relevant issues, including whether Baldr and Hǫðr were divine twins at some stage of the story, why the mistletoe was used to kill Baldr in the Eddic versions of the story (Liberman suggests that originally a reed was used to kill Baldr, with the mistletoe taking over its role in later versions due to linguistic and cultural contact between Scandinavia and England), and the possible etymologies of the name Baldr (which Liberman sees as a Germanic word from the root *bal-, also found in English bald).

Section 2, “Between Heaven and Earth,” consists of five papers, all of which are relatively brief. They address topics like dwarfs, trolls, the devil, and various “heavenly animals” found in Scandinavian myths. Chapter 12, “The True Stature of Mythological Dwarfs” (pp. 303–19), opens the section. It covers the etymology of the word dwarf and the characteristics of dwarfs (for instance, although today, dwarfs are seen as being short, as in works like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, they are not portrayed as such in the Scandinavian source material), among...


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