The Pre-Christian Religions of the North

Research and Reception, Volume II: From c. 1830 to the Present

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Margaret Clunies Ross
The Pre-Christian Religions of the North Series
  • Turnhot, Belgium: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , January
     2019.
     635 pages.
     $130.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9782503568805.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Over a millennium since Christianity eclipsed it across Scandinavia, the pre-Christian worldviews we call Old Norse religion retain their capacity to capture the imagination. During the past two centuries, the deities and mythologies of this belief system have provided the basis for operas, poems, paintings, films, and even new religious movements. Recent decades have seen a growing number of scholars cast light on this reception, and now a new, two-volume set has been published to take stock of what we presently know about this fascinating topic. Part of a new Brepols series on The Pre-Christian Religions of the North, the volumes have been edited by Margaret Clunies Ross, an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Sydney and one of the world’s most respected authorities on Old Norse mythology.

The two volumes are structured broadly chronologically. The first opens with a discussion of perspectives on Old Norse religion from societies that were broadly contemporary to it, including early medieval England and the Arab world. This is followed by a series of chapters detailing how Old Norse religion was understood by the Christian societies of medieval Scandinavia, and how the old gods underwent processes such as demonization and euhemerization. Discussions of humanist interpretations from the 16th and 17th centuries occupy the next few chapters, after which the book delves into the romanticist interpretations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The volume then turns its attention to drama and the visual arts, discussing how artists working in various mediums across Northern Europe began utilizing ideas and images from Old Norse religion from the late 18th century onward. A lone chapter discusses how the development of philology and understandings of a Germanic language family affected understandings of Old Norse religion, before another solo chapter examines the Danish writer N.F.S. Grundtvig.

Grundtvig’s story is picked up in the opening chapter of volume 2. This is followed by discussions of the cultural milieu in Germany and Scandinavia between the 17th and 19th centuries, and transitions to an overview of different disciplinary approaches that took off in the 19th century, among them folkloristics and Religionswissenschaft. The next part delves into the influence of Old Norse religion on the music of that century, with a particular focus on Richard Wagner. Subsequently, there are a series of chapters looking at its reception in theatre and then in literature during the 19th century onward. These are followed by chapters on popular culture and then a (very brief) catalogue of Old Norse religious influences in modern art. The penultimate part details Old Norse religion’s impact in politics and modern Paganism. Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the theoretical and methodological trends in modern scholarship on Old Norse religion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the volumes’ main geographical focus is on the reception of Old Norse religion in Europe, with much less material dealing with its comparative impact in, for instance, the Americas or Australasia. Of the thirty-six scholars who have contributed to the volume, twenty-nine are based in Europe. This focus on Europe has meant that much scholarship written in German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages has been cited, helping to summarize their findings for an English-language readership. Indeed, several chapters were written in languages other than English and then translated. This is a real advantage of the volumes, helping to bring little known material to a broader international audience.

The chapters vary significantly in length. Thomas DuBois’ entry on Finno-Ugric views of Old Norse religion, for instance, lasts only three pages (one consisting solely of references), while Katja Schulz’s piece on the reception of the religion in modernist literature stretches across forty-five pages. In the case of Sarah Timme’s contribution on 20th- and 21st-century visual art, she was unable to provide a full chapter and thus only a five-page catalogue of artworks is provided. Obviously, some topics warrant greater consideration than others, but this variation can feel a little disjointed and some subjects perhaps receive an excessive or insufficient amount of space given their comparative importance vis-à-vis other topics covered.

In her introduction, Clunies Ross explicitly places the volumes within the broader remit of reception studies, giving a brief overview of this field (xxii). Despite this, very few of its contributors engage with the theoretical literature in this topic. Moreover, it is interesting that the term “medievalism,” used to describe the reception of the Middle Ages in post-medieval periods, is almost totally absent. Indeed, David Clark’s chapter on English-language children’s literature is the only contribution to explicitly reference the medievalism framework. This suggests that, although scholars of medievalism have been active since at least the 1970s, they still have much work to do in publicizing their research, even among other scholars whose research de facto explores the reception of the Middle Ages.

There are certainly topics that perhaps warrant greater discussion than they are given in these volumes. The impact of Old Norse religion in cinema is, for instance, largely overlooked despite having an impact arguably more significant than depictions in comic books or children’s literature, both of which are dealt with in adequate depth. Similarly, the reception of Old Norse religion in modern music is fairly briefly sketched over and genres such as neo-folk almost entirely absent. The second volume also focuses heavily on the way that 19th- and 20th-century people have received pre-Christian mythologies, as opposed to Old Norse ritual or lived practice, which is another area to which much attention could be given; Old Norse divination, sacrifices, and funerals have all been depicted repeatedly on film and television, for instance. Although one could point to these and other omissions, it is probably the case that they could not have been adequately dealt with without cutting back on other material or adding a third volume.

As a compendium of information on how people have received and utilized Old Norse religion, these volumes certainly satisfy. They represent important benchmarks in the field which will serve as useful reference points for any scholars working on the reception of the pre-Christian religions of Scandinavia. To Brepols’ credit, the quality of the printed volumes is high, with many chapters illustrated with color reproductions. Thus, any academic library with a collection on Old Norse studies, medievalism, reception studies, or the study of religion should seriously consider investing in these volumes—they will be of great use to scholars going forward.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White earned his PhD in medieval history and archaeology from University College London.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret Clunies Ross is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Sydney.

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