I recently spent just under three weeks travelling through Europe, the latter part of which led me to Northern Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden) and the Liseberg theme park, where many of its rollercoasters are themed around Norse mythology and where this review’s featured image was taken. Fitting to be below Balder, a character who crops up time and time again in H.R. Ellis Davidson’s breezy exploration of Nordic folklore.
I found myself drawn back to Gods and Myths throughout my travels for two reasons. Firstly, I just find mythology and folklore cool. Secondly, and more importantly, I’m of the view that the stories one tells, be they an individual or a society, are frequently more revealing about said individual or society than what they would say or do in a public, non-fictional context. Stories are not real, but the themes and ideas which prop them up are very much so, deriving from all facets of the id, ego and the superego. This is the view which Davidson bases Gods and Myths on in her argument as to why it’s so important to study the stories of our forebearers:
The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilisation on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons their perception of the inner realities. We can learn much from the mythologies of earlier peoples if we have the humility to respect ways of thought widely differing from our own. In certain respects we may be far cleverer than they, but not necessarily wiser.
When a book has an opening paragraph like that, I’m immediately hooked.
Davidson writes in academically accessible prose (which is refreshing, given the nature of other texts I have had the (mis)fortune of reading this year), breaking down clearly the roles which Odin, Thor, Loki and more played in the original myths and poems as well as providing analysis of historical research itself. Texts from the Vikings and pagans themselves were practically non-existent, being verbal storytellers rather than literary ones, so much of the book is drawn from the Prose Edda, written by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, around 1220.
This, however, was still at least two centuries after such myths still held currency, and while modern archaeology provides additional supporting evidence and shines new light on the Norse Gods it remains too difficult to be categorically certain about the mythology itself and the role it played (or, it was when this was written in the 1990s, at least). As such, Gods and Myths is littered with rhetorical questions from Davidson – in the absence of sufficient sources, it is up to us to fill in the blanks with estimations.
Yet even this is tricky, for obvious reasons, but also because the lack of first-hand reports negates any true understanding of what role these stories played, as Davidson articulates at the end of the first chapter:
There is also the deeper question of how far these gods in the myths ever claimed real worship and allegiance from men. Some of the stories are clearly skilful literary efforts, primarily for entertainment. How much real belief existed in the background? Are Thor and Loki serious or comic figures? Can we respect these sometimes naive and childish characters of the myths as Snorri represents them?
Are we learning about stories which Nordic societies understood them to be or stories which these people believed were not so? We can never know for sure, but these gaps in our knowledge provoke interesting considerations of how we understand historical texts. Can we ever know for certain that the Bible, for instance, was not a dense work of fiction taken too seriously by a few men of Israel? How do we know that a thousand years from now, records of our society will not be so sparse that scholars of (several) tomorrow(‘s) will not read our own modern mythologies – superheroes – and construe them as figures of worship? It would be fitting, at least, given how Thor appears in both of them.
If nothing else, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is a concise and entertaining glance through the looking glass of ancient legends. Davidson manages to encompass numerous gods and stories in just over 200 words, from the tale of Thor masquerading as the bride at a wedding in order to regain Mjolnir to the classic text, Beowulf. For anybody even vaguely interested in pre-Christian mythology, I would highly recommend it.