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  • Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia: Retying the Bonds by Jonas Wellendorf
  • Anatoly Liberman
Jonas Wellendorf. Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia: Retying the Bonds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 206 pp.

This is a relatively short but dense book: 121 pages of text, followed by more than eighty pages of notes and a bibliography. The subtitle re-emerges later in the section "The Bonds": "The pre-Christian Old Norse appears to have employed a metaphor comparable to religio when they [sic] referred to the collective of gods as bǫnd 'bonds' and hǫpt 'chains, fetters.' . . . Indeed, the terms bǫnd and hǫpt offer a glimpse of a collective of gods that interacts with humans" (pp. 18–9). Wellendorf sets out to investigate how the acceptance of Christianity went together with treasuring (even if in theory repudiating) pagan myths. The main ways of resolving the conflict are well-known: euhemerization and hiding behind allegory and analogy.

Like their continental counterparts, Icelandic authors tried to understand why it had taken their remote ancestors so long to recognize the [End Page 552] true God, and in some cases to exculpate them. Wellendorf's knowledge of the sources leaves nothing to be desired, but revelations cannot be expected from his book. The market is inundated with dissertations, collections (miscellanies), and surveys devoted to Scandinavian mythology, and since the limited material has been studied high and low and roundabout, discoveries (if one disregards ever new theoretical interpretations of the evidence that may not need them) are becoming rarer and rarer. In some way, we seem to have reached the saturation point in this area.

Wellendorf analyzes some of the famous works, such as the Edda and Gesta Danorum, and the texts that are relatively seldom discussed in the scholarly literature, for example, Barlaams saga (pp. 29–36). His analysis confirms what has always been known: idolatry aroused disgust, but the stories of old could be re-interpreted, saved, put to use, and relished. Saxo and Snorri are the prime examples of that trend. Wellendorf is aware of the difficulty confronting him: everything has been interpreted and re-interpreted multiple times, and there is little room for a breakthrough. About identifying Roman and Scandinavian deities, he says: "The evidence has been gathered and charts compiled, but the wider underlying idea has not been explored to any considerable extent" (p. 62). Perhaps so. Pages 62–70 are devoted to the interpretatio romana and interpretatio norrœna ("Roman interpretation," as in Tacitus, and "Norse, native interpretation") and to the names of the days of the week.

Retelling occupies many pages in the book, and when Wellendorf draws conclusions from the rich material he has analyzed, it is hard to disagree with him. For example, "the mythology was considered worthy of preservation partly for its own sake, as it was a vital part of the cultural tradition and inheritance of the North, but perhaps more importantly because it was inextricably bound up with the traditional art of poetry, whose relevance the Prose Edda anxiously tried to preserve" (pp. 99–100). The passage quoted above contains a supporting reference to Kevin Wanner's 2008 (University of Toronto Press) book Snorri Sturluson and the Edda (p. 167n80). Surely, this idea was not a novelty in 2008.

Some non-trivial information will be found in the analysis of the Edda prologue in Codex Wormianus (pp. 100–8) and especially in the Epilogue discussing the heritage of Guðmundur Andréson (c. 1615–1654) and Jonas Ramus (1649–1718). Here, Wellendorf did much pioneering work and read some texts from a manuscript. Guðmundur identified Baldr as Baal. Later, this etymology turned up many times and has at least one ardent supporter even today. Ramus went in a different direction and identified Odysseus and Odin (Óðinn). Needless to say, Óðr's and Óðinn's peregrinations [End Page 553] have bothered modern scholars not less than their predecessors (in the rich bibliography used in this book, I miss several important, "non-iconic" titles, Karl Helm's book on Óðinn among them). This chapter is a fitting conclusion to the story Wellendorf tells, especially because some medievalists may not...


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