- Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia. Retying the Bonds by Jonas Wellendorf
Medieval Scandinavia, Norse Paganism, old Norse religion, old Scandinavian religion, Christianization, demonology, mythology, the Eddas
The study of the mythology and religious practice of pre-Christian Scandinavia poses many problems for contemporary scholars: incompatibility of terminology, lack of extended sources, and their contamination by later Christian tradition. Jonas Wellendorff's recent Gods and Humans deals with these issues in a highly interesting way.
Over the five chapters of the monograph, Wellendorf discusses pagan Scandinavian religion and its transition towards Christianity through the perspective [End Page 120] of ancient and medieval Latin and Scandinavian texts. Wellendorff devotes Chapter 1 to the process of Christianization of Scandinavian lands and the attempts of missionaries to reduce the old Norse gods to the ranks of Christian demons. In Chapters 2 and 3, Wellendorf discusses the issue of anti-pagan texts in their relation to the old Scandinavian religion, showing the attempts by bards and other indigenous authors to preserve the memory of the old gods in a new way, acceptable to Christianity. However, by far the most interesting issues Wellendorf discusses are treated in the final two chapters, in which he analyses how Saxo Grammaticus and Snorri Sturluson deployed new methods of thinking about pre-Christian beliefs. Both thirteenth-century authors reinterpreted the old Norse gods as humans who had traveled to the Scandinavian lands from western Asia to found the various dynasties of these lands, and claimed that, because of their extensive knowledge and skills, they were eventually mistakenly worshipped as gods. Wellendorf shows that through this euhemerizing strategy, those authors secured the memory of the old gods among the Scandinavian peoples, protecting them from oblivion in the new Christian conditions.
The great value of this work lies in its principles of interpretation and the perspective that Wellendorf uses to show us what kind of religion the pre-Christian Norse actually practiced. By using Augustine's and Varro's tripartite theological classification of religion into the mythological, the civil, and the natural, Wellendorf demonstrates that the Scandinavian cultus indeed involved very different forms of "religion" than what we are accustomed to denote by that term today. Although his analysis deploys categories from classical Latin works, in every moment of the study Wellendorf remains aware of more recent methodological problems, especially the issue of the definition of "religion." Indeed, Wellendorf devotes a considerable part of Chapter 1 to discussions of the problem of the modern creation of the category "religion" and the issues raised by applying this term to pre-Christian religions (or "beliefs," or "faiths," or "traditions," or whatever term we use to describe old Norse "religious" practices and mythology).
But Wellendorf's book is more than just a brilliant study devoted to medieval Scandinavian culture. It is also an invaluable work for anyone interested in early modern Scandinavian historiography. In the final sections of the book (Chapter 5 and the Epilogue), Wellendorf describes an important transition from Scandinavian pagan mythology to the fully Christianized historiography of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the Christianization era, the old Norse gods were, as elsewhere, reduced to the rank of demons. However, there is a notable contrast to what happened for example in eastern Europe, where old beliefs were slowly but systematically eradicated and incorporated into Christian religion or eventually died out, in the process losing [End Page 121] almost every aspect of their former identity., In the Scandinavian culture, the memory of old gods survived into an era when they could be drawn upon without fear of being accused of practicing paganism or witchcraft: they were thus available to be incorporated anew into the culture. The discovery of the manuscript of the Poetic Edda in 1640 was one of the inspirations for early modern Scandinavian scholars to rewrite their old mythology, debunk it, and link it directly to the classical Greco-Roman mythology. Wellendorf shows the sincere will of the seventeenth-century scholars and bards to preserve ancient culture by proving that what had been rejected in recent centuries...