If you’ll excuse the shameless self-promotion… I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Myths of the Pagan North: the gods of the Norsemen (and, in response to queries: yes, the publishers had a hand in the title) will be out later this week.
It’s been a very interesting project: my brief was to write an up-to-date and informed new introduction to Norse mythology, something along the lines of Hilda Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, perhaps. Davidson’s book is still going strong, in print and on the shelves of your local store after some fifty years, and it’s a fine work in its own way. But methodologically, it’s absolutely of its time, much beholden to Jan de Vries, and unaffected by the waves that structuralism was beginning to make in the calm waters of myth criticism. What surprised me when I started work on the book was how little competition there was from the last twenty years or so of publication in English. There are plenty of translations and re-tellings of the myths, of course, and there have been some good books that focus on the religious aspect of Norse paganism (Thomas Dubois’ book being perhaps my favourite): but surprisingly few books for the general reader or student who wants an overview of the topic that is (I hope) readable and reliable in equal measure.
In Myths of the Pagan North, I’ve tried to take an essentially chronological approach to the myths themselves, attempting to find a place for them in religious, social and cultural history. Because the texts are so difficult to date, this was a challenge. But I think that skaldic–as opposed to eddic–poetry can offer us a way back into the pagan period that offers at least some hope of identifying the context that produced it. So, after the usual boring* (but essential) survey of the sources, and a brief discussion of what pagan religion was like (not really the point of the book, but you can’t ignore it), I trace the references to myths in skaldic poetry from the ninth to eleventh centuries and compare them, where possible, to the fuller forms of myths that are found in the much later eddas. Then I look at the effects of the conversion of Norway and Iceland to Christianity on the production and preservation of pagan myth, and the ways that the new religion had a transformative effect on the old traditions, culminating, of course, in Snorra Edda.
If I have a central thesis, I suppose it’s that the Norse myths are not just useful sources for reconstructing Norse paganism (whatever we mean by that term) in some sort of ‘pure’ form, uncontaminated by Christianity. Rather, they are constantly changing and being reinvented in response to different social and religious challenges, of which the arrival of Christianity was by far the most significant. By looking at the myths, where possible, on their own terms and in their own time, as historically situated texts, we might hope to understand what they meant to the people that produced them, whether that was in 900 or 1225. Also, I think it’s interesting to think about Norse mythology growing and even improving as we move further away from the pagan period. Some of Snorri’s tales are rejected as being the fabrications of a Christian scholar, for example: but they’re also the best and fullest versions of the myths that we have. Rather than condemning Snorri for lack of fidelity to traditions that he couldn’t believe in, it seems worthwhile to emphasise the newness and originality of his work and to try to assess how the Edda acquired meaning for a thirteenth-century audience thereby.
Anyway, it was a fun book to write, and I hope people enjoy it. The first review is already out. There’s a small discount if you order it at Amazon.co.uk; it won’t be out in North America until April, unfortunately. If you’re around London, there will be a modest launch party next week, on 3 March, at which all are welcome.
* My publisher would like me to emphasise that the first chapter of my book is not boring. Apologies for any confusion.