Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is unquestionably one of the most read secondary-sources in the Northern Paganism sphere. Even though it is nearly forty years old, it is almost always at the top of any “recommended reading” list, and continues to be one of the most widely referenced works among both scholars and pagans alike.
Davidson’s book, in a much abbreviated glance, is introduction to the pre-Christian beliefs of the Scandinavian and Germanic people. Not only does she explain the myths and cosmology of these earlier peoples, but also dives into the archelogy and first-person accounts of the worship and form of the gods and goddesses honored throughout this area. In this way, she manages to bring many different sources and genres together to create a concise and condensed discussion of the religion of the early Northern European people, something that could not be gained from simply reading the primary sources.
Gods and Myths of Northern Europe opens up with a worthy account of the people behind the myths, those who lived and breathed in a time when the native religion was still flourishing. She describes the nature of these people, and hints at the Christianization process that took place. After giving us an understanding of how the beliefs were lost originally, she gives us an explanation of the remaining sources that we have to reconstruct those beliefs, focusing mostly on Snorri, before giving us a very brief account on how mythology and early religions are studied.
After this introduction, we move into the brunt of the work. At first, she starts were anyone studying a particular mythology for the first time should, the cosmology. She explains the symbolism behind Yggdrasil, the great world tree, as well as providing some theories behind its development. She then moves on to describing the creation of the world, pulling mostly from Snorri once more for this endeavor. Finally, she gives us short overviews of the various myths and stories we still have record of. This part, in particular, is useful to those stepping on the path for the first time, as it provides the explanations necessary to understand many of the key myths and primary sources needed to have a full understanding of the native religion of Northern Europe.
Finally, we enter the section where Davidson’s ability truly begins to shine. She begins a discussion on the gods themselves, grouping them under titles like “the gods of battle” and “the gods of peace and plenty” and drawing from a large variety of sources to offer a complete picture. Here, she not only reviews the deities as they appear in myths, but also how their image and personality reflected into the physical world. She describes the rituals and worship surrounding them, as well as the images and symbols associated with them and their cults. She explains the journeys Nerthus and Freyr were said to make in their wagons every spring around the country, with their priest and priestess traveling to parade the god and goddess to the people and bless the land. The “berserks” of the god Othin are described, as well as the frenzy they were said to go into in battle due to their worship of the “god of ecstasy”. These chapters are of particular interest to the modern pagan, as they give us an idea of how the ancient people saw the gods and how they were worshiped. For example, the explanation of the sacred pillars of Thor and the boats of Freyr might give us inspiration in shrine construction, while the descriptions of Frayja’s volvas might give us ideas of how to worship and work with the gods in a ritual context.
Of course, every book has its bruises and its sore spots, and in this particular publication they show up with particular ferocity in the last chapter. Probably originally intended to wrap the concepts and discussions presented in the book into a nice conclusion, the concluding chapter comes off preachy and extremely biased. For someone who praised Snorri for his objectivity, I was surprised that Davidson allowed her own objectivity to falter to the extent that she would claim, on the final page, that “the old faith could no longer offer men what they needed.” Then, of course, there is also the issue of the book’s age. Being nearly forty years old, the book in some ways presents outdated information. Theories change and our pool of sources grows; older books can simply not expected to represent the most recent developments.
Perhaps one of the most unique and surprising things present in the book is the amount of comparative mythology that takes place between Celtic and Norse mythology. A very large part of the discussion about Heimdall involves the comparison of his nine sea-giantess mothers with “an Irish saga of nine giant maidens of the sea who mothered a boy between them”. This happens again in the discussion of Freyr, where she compares him to various figures from a number of mythologies across Europe. Though this might not be of particular interest to the average reader, for those seeking to recreate the ancient Anglo-Saxon religion, the inter-connectedness of Indo-European mythology and culture is of considerable importance. This, on top of the fact that the book is simply a well put together introduction, makes it a particularly good choice for anyone with a slight interest in the ways of the Norse and Anglo-Saxons.
After all the pros and cons have been tallied and the critics long quieted down, this book remains an easy and engaging read for anyone with even the slightest interest in Germanic or Scandinavian mythology. Davidson effortlessly pulls together information from a variety of sources and presents them to the reader in a manner that, while providing the information necessary, does not bog the beginner down with unnecessary references or explanation.