Book Review: Nordic Religions in the Viking Age
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Book Review: Nordic Religions in the Viking Age
Reviewed by Jordsvin
During my recent and all-too-brief summer vacation, I was able to get started on a backlog of reading. The first book I picked up after finishing a long-planned article on Freyr was Nordic Religions in the Viking Age by Thomas A. DuBois (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; ISBN # 0-8122-1714-4 or 0-8122-3511-8 for the hardback edition). It proved to be a most enlightening choice. Not only was the Heathenism of Norse-speakers discussed, but also the Pagan beliefs of the Sámi/Lapps and the Baltic Finns (Finns, Estonians and Karelians), and even the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity gradually spreading by various means into the Nordic areas.
Several concepts introduced by DuBois interested me in particular. One was to look at how religions and religious communities function within themselves and interact with each other, then posit back to how they might have done so in the context of the Viking Age. Another idea which seems to have considerable merit is the idea that Christian ideas spread northward ahead of the religion itself. Two examples in particular of this phenomenon are inhumation (burial) gradually replacing cremation and also the development of the Ragnarök myth. Needless to say, ideas traveled back and forth between the various Pagan religions as well, and at least in its initial stages, the literature, iconography, and even modes of thought in the Christianity emerging in the Germanic world bore to a degree pronounced Heathen influences.
Another important concept is that religions, even “religions of the book” like Christianity are not static phenomena, but rather ever-evolving complexes capable of also having varied contemporary outlooks depending on things like educational level, culture, geographic areas, socio-economic classes, etc. The Roman Catholicism of our own era, while of course retaining some continuity with the Roman Catholicism of the Viking Age, is nonetheless different in many ways. It goes without saying of course that is even truer for contemporary versus Viking-Age Germanic Heathenism, since much less continuity has been possible due to circumstances beyond our control. All this ties in with some of the nuances in my own approach to Heathenism, particularly my support for freedom of religion and peaceful interaction with Christians today, while at the same time refusing to condemn Viking raids on monasteries “back in the day”!
The issue of religious tolerance turns out to be a complex one as well. The various Heathen cults (i.e. organized worship of Freyr versus that of Óđin, etc.) were in some sense competing with each other for adherents, influence, resources, etc. These sundry cults also, at least to some extent, were identified with various regions, classes, and occupations. While the often violent intolerance of the Catholicism of the time, as exemplified in the two King Ólafrs of Norway (may Niđhögg gnaw them both), is well-known both in and out of Heathen circles, it turns out that Heathens could be a tad intolerant as well (i.e. the fines Swedish Christians had to pay for not attending the centralized sacrifices in Gamla Uppsala), and Heathen rulers were just as capable as Christian ones of using religion to prop up their own political rule. Nevertheless, while royal choices in regard to religion were often decisive, popular opinion could still come out on top, as in the case of Norway’s King Haakon the Good, who was fostered and Christianized in the British Isles but who all the same was forced to accommodate the still-strong Heathenism of his subjects when he returned home as king.
A glance at the chapter titles will give an idea of just what Nordic Religions in the Viking Age has to offer: “Communities of Belief,” “The Cultures and History of the Viking-Age North,” “Religions in the Viking Age: Contexts and Concepts for Analysis,” “Gods, Guides and Guardians: Spiritual Aids,” “Visitors from Beyond: Death, Afterlife, and the Problem of Ghosts,” “Concepts of Health and Healing,” The Intercultural Dimensions of the Seiđr Ritual,” “The Coming of the Cross: Religious and Artistic Effects, and “Achieving Faith: Christian Themes and Pagan Functions.” The book also boasts an epilogue, a brief but highly useful glossary, copious notes, a huge bibliography, and a fairly detailed index.
I can without hesitation recommend this book to any Heathen reader of scholarly bent, am proud to include it in my library, and encourage you to purchase it as well. Since the advent of the Internet, book-hoarding has become much easier, but in many countries, interlibrary loan can also help you get your hands on this fine work!
last modified 11/27/2003