Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson

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.

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Innangeard and Utgeard

Due to the heavy Judeo-Christian influences in our culture, concepts like religion and its associated ideas such as cosmology and ethics are seen as universal. Divinity is usually interpreted as either omnipresent or far-beyond-this-world. Ethics are seen as unanimously appropriate, though they are fashioned from the relationship between the divine and his/her individual worshippers. However, many of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors did not see the world or the nature of the divine in this way, as their concepts of religion, culture, and politics were directly related to their familiar surroundings – the mountains, fields, and rivers that shaped and created their everyday life (Bauschatz 130). To put it bluntly, the pagan Anglo-Saxons recognized that morality and cosmology was not universally acceptable, and were instead based on the particular surroundings and geographic enclosures surrounding a specific place. On a day-to-day level, these enclosed areas were represented by the specific, fenced-in homesteads that dotted the country-side, commonly referred to as ‘geards’. The original meaning of this word was probably something along the lines of ‘wall’ (Oxford English Dictionary), though it eventually developed to name the enclosure itself.

Unlike what our modern, largely Christian viewpoint might define as a ‘religion’, the world (and therefore the source of their morals and ethics) of the Anglo-Saxons did not focus exclusively on the divine and the help said divine granted to its followers. Instead, they largely focused on the geards that enclosed, cultivated, and supported their community, and separated it from the world beyond. In Iceland, this differentiation between the community and the outside world was referred to using the terms ‘innangardh’ and ‘utangardh’ , and it can be generally assumed that the Anglo-Saxons probably had similar terms, but they have not been pasted down to us. Therefore, I will make a loose attempt to reconstruct the terms the Anglo-Saxons might have used, and will be using ‘innangeard’ and ‘utgeard’. The innangeard is understood to be the civilized space of close-knit social relationships, while the utgeard is everything outside of it. At times, the specific identification of the boundaries that separated these two geards might have been physical – a particularly mountain, a river, or even an actual wall. However, they were by no means geographically fixed. If your community grew or your farm expanded, then naturally so would your innangeard. Therefore, both the innangeard and utgeard were primarily conceptual, though they might occasionally be directly translated into real world landmarks.

The utgeard is not simply everything that “isn’t innangeard”, however, and it holds a much higher importance than most Heathens seem to give it credit for. The term is still used throughout Scandinavia (in its Old Norse form of course) to mean something along the lines of “an outlying farmstead, dependent on or owned by another, more central farm or village,” or “the fences delimiting the inlying fields of a village from the outlying fields” (Vikstrand 354). In Sweden, the terms utgards, utangards, and utangarding are used as epithets to mean “not from our farm; from somewhere else” (Vikstrand 354). Something was considered in a community’s utgeard if it was beyond the physical or conceptual barrier that separated the outside world from that particular community, and this utgeard could contain a large range of beings: Landvaettir, Eutons, Rime-Thurses, people, and even animals like wolves and deer. These beings would have been perceived as unrestrained, uncivilized, and wild, not fit in any way to constructively take part in the community. Just because they were considered utgeards, however, does not mean they were never contacted or interacted with. People often hunted deer to eat, and communities were in almost constant communication for trade and defense purposes. However, these beings were still separated from an individual’s own innangeard.

The innangeard is made up by a particular community’s laws, social mores, and the various traditions and beliefs of its defined religion. In most cases, these concepts were so intertwined that it was almost impossible to separate them. Tradition dictated laws, and in turn those laws supported and shaped tradition. These customs gave the community an identity, and further reinforced the innangeard. Local sovereignty was so reliant on these traditions, in fact, that later kings would commonly travel and participate in regional religious events.

The barriers between the innangeard and utgeard were never stationary. They could easily be shifted with social, political, and religious influences. Other people and communities could be accepted as part of the innangeard, or they could be expelled from it. Villages and larger regions split and merged. Marriage between two families or small villages could result in their joining, and the religious ceremony of symbel could bind unrelated people together under a king (Enright 10). In Iceland (and probably among the earlier Anglo-Saxons), outlawry was the harshest punishment for a crime available. An outlaw existed beyond the protection of the innangeard, and was considered ‘other’ by the community. They not only existed outside the community’s laws and customs, but also outside what we might simply consider kindness; they could be killed on sight without any punishment, and were also subject to thievery and other non-violent crimes.

The concepts of Innangeard and Utgeard are far more complicated and encompassing than many Heathens realize. It is far more than a matter of one who relies on, and who one might consider an outsider; the Innangeard is a matter of community – the laws, traditions, and customs of your kin – and is not merely reliant on a particular person’s opinion. It is definitely not an excuse to exclude another person based on a difference in opinion, especially if said person is inherently a member of your community. On top of that, the moral and ethical requirements shift between the geards – while it would not be okay to steal or harm someone from your community, the same could not be said in regards to outsiders. These two concepts and the division between them are integrally complex, especially with their fluid nature. However, they were inherent to how our Anglo-Saxon ancestors saw and interacted with the world, and as we try to recreate their ancient practices into our modern world, it is necessary that we seek to understand and use them.

Citations

Bauschatz, Paul. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

Enright, Michael. Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age. Four Courts Press, 1996.

Vikstrand, Pers. “Ásgarðr, Miðgarðr, and Útgarðr. A linguistic approach to a classical problem.” Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives. Origins, Changes, and interactions. Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

“Wall.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., 1993.

The Primeval Cow (or lack thereof)

Animal husbandry has an extremely long history among the Anglo-Saxons, with evidence of domesticated cattle stretching back all the way into Neolithic times. Though we as modern people might not appreciate it, raising cattle is a long and hard process, requiring specific knowledge and a great deal of luck. For example, it takes a formidable amount of working knowledge and understanding of the land in order to carefully manage grasslands not only to support that year’s cattle, but also the next couple generations of cattle. It is not as simple as to lead your cattle to the field; it requires a great deal of planning and work. To complicate matters further, pastures were commonly not accessible all year around. In the winter, large snowdrifts could make accessing higher latitude areas impossible, while in the summer snowmelt could dampen other areas to the point of inaccessibility. Dairy cows and younger animals are particularly prone to these issues, and need a constant supply of nutrient-rich grass. Winter fodder was a must, and this took up a great deal of land in and of itself. Since the majority of the early economy was based largely on mixed agriculture, land to grow vegetables and grain for human consumption was also needed, and it was paramount that such lands were not used constantly as to prevent the soil from becoming barren. While, of course, the whole community was involved when it came to herding and caring for the cattle, it was sometimes not enough. Famine and the collapse of the settlement were not uncommon phenomenon.

However, those communities and families that managed to keep their cattle alive (and healthy) while also preventing the land from being depleted found themselves in a very comfortable spot in society. Cattle themselves were widespread icons of prosperity and status, and were expressed in later currency, in feasting, and in the art of gift-giving. They provided man-power for ploughs and cart, milk products, meat, leather, and horns. The status of cattle and their large contribution to someone’s wealth was expressed even after the Anglo-Saxons were Christianized, when tenth-century English law codes focused heavily on the penalties for cattle-raiding, even though arable cultivation was much more important to the economy at that time. One could even say that the importance of the cattle were more heavily emphasized after the conversion (though this could, in all honesty, be a matter of increased sources than an actual increase in importance), especially with the accounts of feasting particularly on cuts of beef and the use of elaborate drinking horns as a sign of wealth and power. The origin for the Anglo-Saxon word ‘inheritance’ is even derived from the same word as ‘cattle’ (Oosthuizen 22).

It might come to a surprise, then, that there is almost zero mention of cows in any of the surviving Heathen Anglo-Saxon texts. While, of course, this does not mean that they didn’t have the concept of a Primeval Cow like the Norse did, it doesn’t exactly support it either. However, since we do not have a record of the Anglo-Saxon creation myth, many ASH sects derive theirs directly from Norse sources. Many may argue that the fact that a Primeval Cow exists in some other Indo-European cultures verifies that the Anglo-Saxons must have done the same. However, there are plenty of Indo-European cultures that never expressed this concept, and it is believable that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t either. Therefore, it is hard to say whether or not the Anglo-Saxons had religious beliefs involving cattle, or whether their interests with them was largely practical. Still, I would believe that it makes far more sense to side with our lack of evidence over made-up fakes and lone comparative mythology.

Citations

Banham, Debby. Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. OUP Oxford, 2015.

Hamerow, Helena. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. OUP Oxford, 2011

Oosthuizen, Susan. Traditions and Transformation in Anglo-Saxon England: Archeology,  Common Rights and Landscape. A&C Black, 2013.