Well, this is the final review that I write for the Hearth Culture Book Review. It’s about the book “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe”, by Hilda Davidson.
“Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” tries to explain the richness of the myths from Northern Europe. It tries to show us how their gods and goddesses, the Norsemen, and the Germanic people before them, were related. I don’t share all of her conclusions, but I think that this book is an interesting and valuable read to everyone interested in learning about this wonderful world and their people. I think that the best way to learn about the ones that were living in that times is to know their myths and their relationship to their gods and goddesses. Reading this could help you understand how they saw their world and their lives, and the most important thing, how they really live back then.
In the Introduction of the book, Hilda Davidson talks us about the people that wrote those myths, the sources that we have now to study them and the help that disciplines, like Archaelogy, bring us in this this study. I think that the way in wich she starts the book is a good one. She stablishes the starter point in the people, to know a little bit about them before we star to take a deeper look in what they believe.
In the first chapter, called “The World of the Northern Gods”, she writes about the Eddas, Snorri’s Prose Edda in particular, and then makes a brief exposition of other myths outside these ones. This is a little overview about what Snorri said about the gods, but it’s interesting to have all of these myths in the book, so you can take a look to what they say before you study in depth their actors.
Chapter 2 is entitled “The Gods of Battle” and it makes a depiction of Odin/Wodan and Tyr/Tiwaz as Gods of the Battle and War. We also have a description of the Valkyries and the Berserkrs; the Handmaidens of Odin, the Chosers of the Slain, and the full of rage warriors of whom they said that could change their human forms to animal ones on battle to that of bears or wolves. We could see the blood-thirsty images of the earlier forms of both gods in the way that they were worshiped by the Germanic people as Tacitus or Procopius showed them in their works, when Tiwaz was prominent over Wodan. And then we see the later forms as were worshiped by the Norsemen, when Odin took the place of Tyr as the head of the Pantheon. Odin is presented as a god in whom you cannot trust, and Tyr as a minor law and order figure, even when both seem to share a similar position as gods of war and battle.
The third chapter is called “The God of Thunder”, and there we find Donar/Thor. There are an account of Thor’s presence in the myth and how he is depicted in them. Then we take a look at his temples and his principal symbol, the Hammer. We can see him in a comparisson with Hercules first and Jupiter then, as a Sky God. And at last, we can see a little about his adversaries: the Serpent of the World, Iormundgandr, and the Frost Giants and Giantesses.
As Odin and Tyr are presented as the gods of the warriors and the nobles, Thor is see as the god of the farmers and commoners. He is a god of physical strenght, but also a god of thunder and rain, the son of Earth, the husband of the Grain, and heavily related with the fertility of the fields.
Snorri and other Christian skalds could made him a funny figure, but H.R.E. Davidson has to be right about the heavy importance that Thor would had for the ancients, as he was a god of the hallow places and his Hammer was used to hallow marriages, and a lot of boys and girls alike were named after him.
In the next chapter, “The Gods of Peace and Plenty”, we could found a handful of gods and goddesses of the land, fertility, peace and abundance, and everything else related to these concepts like marriage, childbirth, the protection of the hearth and home, … The majority of these deities are part of the group of fertility gods know as the Vanir, but we could found other deities with similar functions, like Frigg, Balder or the Matres (also known as Idises/Dísir).
As I, myself, am a follower of the Vanir gods and a practitioner of some kind of shamanic witchcraft similar to what we could call seidhr, this chapter was really delightfull for me. I found a lot of my own experiencies, practices and UPG mirrored in these pages, even when I still don’t share everything that the author says.
The next chapter was about “The Gods of the Sea”, the Jotnar like Aegir and Ran, and the Vanir like Njörd, all linked with different aspects of the ocean and sailing, or the boats. This chapter is clearly related to the previous one, being the sea and the ships so closely linked to the Vanir and their cult. We could see a good examination of the ships, their link to fertility, the sea, the Otherworlds and the burial mound, all very close to the Vanir deities. And it has some interesting stuff about the sea giants and the fierce and wild waves: their daughters, the Nine Waves are the mothers of Heimdallr and we could find them in Celtic lore too, so here we have a link between these two people, Celts and Germanics, so closely related.
“The Gods of the Dead” is a very interesting chapter about the different deities related in different ways to the dead and their world. Here we find Odin/Wodan again as the shaman god that travels to the Otherworlds, lead the dead to their place there, or enter shamanic trances to talk about the future of the living. The conection between Odin, Sleipnir and the World Tree with other similar entities in different places of Eurasia gives us a good overview about all of these issues.
We have then the links of the Vanir with the burial mound and their habitants, and the elves. And the difference between the Aesic tradition of living in the Otherworld, and the Vanic of rebirth in this world. Then we see Thor as a god related to the dead too. There are hammers in the tombs that show, at least, his link with protection at death. And we have some stories that relate Thor with an afterlife in hills or mountains, where some important family members could receive you.
And finally, Ms Davidson takes the figure of the Dragon and shows its relation with the dead and the burial mound, the gold and the fire, even when we don’t have clear how these associations were made.
The next chapter is called “The Enigmatic Gods”, and in this one Ms Davidson takes some of the “minor” gods and goddesses to bring some light upon them. She makes a brief account about what is said in the myths and what physical evidences (like names of places, offerings and other stuff) we have to know Bragi, his wife Idunn, Mimir, Hoenir, The Twin Gods called The Alcis, Forseti, Heimdallr, Loki and Balder and his wife Nanna. For some of them, we have very little evidence but the name and some kind of attributions; some of them seem some kind of borrow from neighbour people, or some posterior invention. By the way, the author tells us that any of those theories can’t be completely proved in any way.
In the eight chapter, “The Beginning and the End”, we find a presentation of the myths related with the creation and the destruction of the worlds, and a little study about the World Tree and its importance in the myths. Hilda Davidson tells us about different traditions realted with a World Tree in other European and Asiatic places, all of them really similar, showing the vast recognition of a tree as the center of the universe.
At the conclusion of the book, the writer takes the principal characteristics of the gods and goddesses to speak about how the ancient people saw their lives and values; and how, in the end, they turned to Christianity; some of them were even forced to do it, some were executed because they didn’t want to, but in a way or another, at the end, the North became Christian.
The book is a great help and resume of the multiple myths, tales and archaelogical evidences at the time it was written. But it has some points in where I strongly disagree with Hilda Davidson’s point of view; some of her visions of the gods and myths are totally opposed to mine, or the reasons that she gives to why the ancients accepted Christianity. Nevertheless, it is a good reading and one of the basics to a better understanding of the Norse-Germanic religion.