Tuesday, 2 July 2019
It’s very easy when writing about a mythology to present it as a coherent monolithic belief system. I try to be constantly alert to the flexibility of myth, the way it mutates and transforms, not just over time but in the perception of different groups and different individuals.
A new book, Myth, Materiality and Lived Religion in Merovingian and Viking Scandinavia (ed. Wikström af Edholm et. al., Stockholm University Press) has a whole section on “Myths and Lived Religion” that explores the way myth intersects with the lives of individuals and communities. One essay, “Configurations of Religion in Late Iron Age and Viking Age Scandinavia” by Andreas Nordberg is particularly perceptive about the way in which Old Norse religion, far from being a one-size-fits-all affair, was made up of “partly parallel patterns of religious experience, beliefs, and behaviour.”
Nordberg identifies four overlapping “religious configurations” in the Viking Age: of the farmstead, of the warband, of the hunting and fishing grounds, and a fourth “mythological” configuration.
In the life of the farmstead, the most basic foundation of society, religious aspiration was for “cosmic order, prosperity, and the regeneration of the crop and animal stock, as well as the well-being of land and people”. Local deities and spirits related to these aspirations might have “played a more prominent part in everyday religion than did the higher gods”. And of those gods, it is those related to the earth and sky, such as Freyr, Freyja, and Thor, who are shown by surviving placenames to have been most important to the religious configuration of the farmstead.
For the aristocratic warband, with its hall culture, the pre-eminent god was Odin, who “represented all the characteristics of the at times capricious life in the warband community.” Through death in battle, warriors initiated into Odin’s service “achieved complete communion with their god.” Initiation rituals included a ritual drama in which the would-be warrior was transformed into a wolf or a bear, and received a new name attesting to this experience.
While the warriors alternated between the configurations of farmstead and hall, for ordinary people the religious configuration of the warband was of little relevance, and they had no profound ties to Odin, the god of battle, poetry, and mead. Nordberg suggests, though, that both ordinary people and warriors alternated between the religious configuration of the homestead and that of the hunting and fishing grounds.
The evidence for hunting and fishing traditions, rituals, and taboos in pre-Christian Scandinavia is scant, but Nordberg argues convincingly, I think, that a wealth of such traditions did exist, centred probably around ways of pleasing and appeasing the supernatural owners of the fish and prey, and the spirits of the land and water. In hunting and fishing—a hugely important survival activity—the gods of mythology seem to have been largely irrelevant.
Are those mythological gods evidence of a fourth “mythological configuration”? Nordberg thinks so, because the world of the gods is “a mythical universe ... which partly resembles human society, but is also part of a totally different world.” Many of the myths recount events “that had no or few parallels in religious practice”, and furthermore many of the gods and supernatural beings who feature in the myths “were not the subject of actual worship.” Mythology and mythical storytelling, while overlapping with the religious configurations of homestead and hall, were in many ways separate from the concerns of “lived religion.”
Myth and religion in Viking Age Scandinavia were not, in Nordberg’s view, homogeneous, either for society or the individual, but instead a set of overlapping belief systems “formed (and transformed) by their day-to-day livelihoods, subsistence, and affiliation to social groups.”
I would suggest there must have been at least one more religious configuration—that of the lived religion of women. The Norse myths as they have been handed down to us are very male dominated, but Snorri Sturluson tells us that the goddesses, the Asyniur, were just as important as the male gods: “No less holy are the Asyniur, nor is their power less.”
This is a very interesting way, I think, to break down a society, a mythology, and a religion into their interrelated component parts. I won’t think about Norse mythology in quite the same way again, having read Andreas Nordberg’s thought-provoking essay.