Book Review: Myths of the Pagan North by Christopher Abram

Myths of the Pagan North Christopher Abram

Let’s get this out of the way first: Christopher Abram’s Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen has a ridiculous and misleading title. Don’t be fooled by it. Abram has admitted that the title was chosen by his publisher, Continuum, not by him. Continuum has really gone out of their way to have the worst of both worlds here. Their intention is evidently to portray Abram’s book as a generic introduction to the Norse myths and deities. It’s nothing of the sort. Readers who want a generic introduction will be sorely disappointed, and readers who are looking for the more substantial material of which this offering consists will probably overlook the book due to the title. Not only is this disingenuous – it’s bad marketing, too. Note to authors: don’t let this company publish your works.

What Abram’s book actually consists of is, in his own words, “a history of myth-making in medieval Scandinavia.” It traces the Norse myths’ transmission and development from Viking Age skaldic poetry to the later Eddas. The first and second chapters set the stage with an overview of the sources for Norse mythology and a discussion of pre-Christian Germanic religion in order to provide context for the book’s main focus. The third through sixth chapters follow Norse literature that deals with the myths from the earliest examples in the court poetry of the ninth century, through the age of religious conflict heralded by the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia and concluded by the conversion of the populace in the tenth century, and ultimately ending with the “Renaissance” of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, which gave us the Poetic Edda and the works of Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus.

In addition to providing what’s probably, to date, the best single-volume overview and analysis of the literary sources, Abram considers a central paradox of the sources: the fact that the closer in time a source is to pre-Christian religion as a living tradition, the sparser the information it provides, while the farther into the Christian period a source is, the more fleshed-out its portrayal is. This is surely due to the fact that pre-Christian audiences would have known many of the myths by heart, which meant that poets could simply reference a particular element of a myth and be reasonably certain that their audience would understand it. Poets and authors writing long after the conversion couldn’t assume such familiarity.

This paradox has three main ramifications. The first is that, as several other scholars have also pointed out, the sources that give the fullest accounts of Norse mythology are the most problematic in terms of reconstructing what pre-Christian myths might have looked like. The second is that “Norse mythology” as we know it today is largely a product of medieval Iceland, which looked back to “paganism” as a subject of antiquarian interest. “Norse mythology” is an artificial, post-“pagan” canon of stories built around motifs inherited from the “pagan” era, but which play with those motifs in a way that has scant regard for our own modern, post-Enlightenment notions of “historical accuracy.”

The third ramification, and the most intriguing, is that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chiding medieval authors for writing the books they wanted to write rather than the books that we might want them to have written misses a bigger point. In Abram’s own words:

Myth is eternal, but it never stops changing. … [R]ather than seeing the Norse myths as diminishing over time as elements from genuine traditions were lost, we might look on the creation of this mythology as an additive process. The Norse myths get fuller, more sophisticated and more interesting over time, as elements from these different traditions are combined in new and innovative ways. Even as the myths moved further away from their putative origins in pagan culture, they continued to grow and develop and capture the imaginations of new poets, scholars and presumably their audiences.

In other words, fixating on recapturing an “original,” “pure” version of the myths does a disservice to the very nature of myth itself.

There’s really no other book out there like Abram’s, and it does a masterful job of filling that scholarly and intellectual gap. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to venture beyond the basics of Norse mythology.

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