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Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H R…

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964)

by H R Ellis Davidson

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1,077911,989 (3.85)18
The origins and the stories behind Scandinavian deities are given in detail.



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A man's heroic deeds will win renown, and his fine qualities will be passed on to his descendents. Such is the noblest form of immortality, and the great gods themselves achieved no more. [217]

Readable and clear, Davidson's slim narrative is not shallow summary but a muscular outline of the achievement and character of Norse mythology. The emphasis is analytic: Davidson identifies themes across myths and deities, summarises archaeological evidence and source materials, traces broad influences in modern belief and religion. Myths are not retold so much as characterised, and the people who believed and lived these stories are considered at the level of individual tribes and communities. Davidson avoids glossing over discrepancies, pointing out contradictory aspects of stories and especially of deities, reinforcing the major gaps in the historical record. For example, in the case of almost any deity except Odin, Thor, and Freyr, there is virtually no archaeological evidence of worship or cults, making clear how oversimplified are the popular characterizations of Heimdall, Loki, Balder, and others.

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. [...] The dangers of this view of the world lay in a tendency towards lack of compassion for the weak, an over-emphasis on material success, and arrogant self-confidence: indeed the heroic literature contains frank warning against such errors. [218-19]

Undoubtedly some conclusions are dated but it should be fairly easy to determine which, based on where new evidence or sources became available since 1964. I suspect that Davidson will be wrong, when she is wrong, because pertinent source materials simply aren't available: she'll be wrong for what's requisite yet missing, and not wrong for making an untenable reading, or for neglecting some pertinent theme. All considered, a fine entry point for my renewed interest in the Norse tradition.

Man must not take himself or even his gods too seriously, and this is an attitude which goes deeper than the wit of Snorri, it is part of the spirit of the myths themselves. The exuberant exaggerations of the Irish sagas are not for the northern gods; Freyja, Thor, Loki have the robust common sense which the Vikings themselves admired hugely. [...] This sense of proportion ... helps to preserve in the myths a keen realization of the strength of fate. [217]


To be confirmed: apart from Valhalla, open to a select minority, there is no afterlife for Vikings, nor immortality for their gods. There is, however, a conviction that life follows a cycle, that the Nine Worlds will be destroyed (including Valhalla) only to make way for something new, once again with Yggdrasill at the center.

Extensive notes, glossary, and bibliography suggest further reading and avenues of exploration. ( )
3 vote elenchus | Jan 9, 2017 |
We can see the myths as a vigorous, heroic comment on life, life as men found it in hard and inhospitable lands. The gods never cease their struggle against the creatures of cold and darkness. Thor, perhaps the best-loved deity of the north, is characteristic of the Vikings in his resolute pertinacity. The values for which he stood—law and order in the free community, the keeping of faith between men—were those by which the Vikings set great store, even though they themselves often appeared to the outside world as the forces of destruction unleashed. Odin represented the other side of life, the inspiration granted to the warrior and the poet, and the secret wisdom won by communication with the dead. In his cult and in the religion of the Vanir we see most clearly the shamanistic tendencies of northern religion, the emphasis on man's powers to reach out beyond this harsh and limited world. Above all, the northern myths are clear-sighted in their recognition of the reality of the forces of destruction. The fight in a narrow place against odds, which has been called the ideal of heroic literature in the north, is given cosmic stature in the conception of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, when Odin and his peers go down fighting against monsters and the unleashed fury of the elements.

I have just finished a re-read of this book, which I first read in 1995/6. It was published in 1964, so there are probably more up to date books on the same subject, but it is a very interesting study of the Norse Gods and their Germanic counterparts.

Starting with what Snorri Sturluson wrote about the Gods and Giants and the structure of the mythological worlds linked by the World Tree Yggdrasill, the authors discusses what is known about each of the main Gods and some of the more obscure ones, how they may have developed from what was known about the Gods of the Germanic tribes on the borders of the Roman Empire, links to the Shamanism of Northern Europe and Asia, and the ways in which the representation of the myths may have been affected by contact withthe new religion of Christianity.

I am left wanting to visit the Viking Age Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, and the Old Manor House at Knaresborough in Yorkshire, which was built round an oak tree whose branches used to form ceiling beams until they had to be removed in the late 20th century due to rot. ( )
3 vote isabelx | Aug 19, 2014 |
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe attempts to tease out the traditional beliefs of the Germanic peoples from antiquity until the last conversions to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Unlike with other strands of paganism, such as the ancient Greek and Roman religions, there is much less material to work with and much of it is either fragmentary, written by outsiders, or set to paper only in the Christian era when widespread belief in the old gods and goddesses was gone.

This doesn't stop Davidson, and she manages to produce a thorough of what we do know as well as provide much food for thought in terms of what has probably been lost to the ages. Starting with a basic overview of Snorri's Prose Edda, the author continues with biographies of all the major deities known to us and describes their roles in society. Suffice to say it wasn't all Vikings and Valhalla. From the beginnings of the world tree to the end of Ragnarök, it is all covered here.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the northern gods and goddesses, there is so much we don't know that it will only leave you wanting to learn more. ( )
2 vote inge87 | Jan 15, 2014 |
I have not found too many books on Viking mythology. This is important from the point of view of contrast with Christianity. My own interest comes from a desire to find more information on Valhalla. This book is a summary broken down into topics with very brief quotes from source texts. For my interest level, this book was what I was looking for. ( )
  sacredheart25 | Dec 27, 2011 |
This is a very interesting read into what we know about mythology in Northern Europe in both pre- and viking age. The author does tend to do some hypothetical guesses that are presented as evidence, so do be careful if you use this as a source. This book did make me think, and it helps to get a better understanding of mythology/religion in general and the Northern Germanic mythology in particular. ( )
3 vote eyja | Apr 17, 2008 |
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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.
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Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson was an English antiquarian and academic, writing in particular on Germanic paganism and Celtic paganism. Davidson used literary, historical and archaeological evidence to discuss the stories and customs of Northern Europe. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is considered one of the most thorough and reputable sources on Germanic mythology. Like many of her publications, it was credited under the name H. R. Ellis Davidson. Davidson was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and was president of the Council of the Folklore Society from 1974 to 1976, and served on the council from 1956 to 1986. Davidson has been cited as having "contributed greatly" to the study of Norse mythology.
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