Book Review: Nordic Religions in the Viking Age by Thomas A. DuBois

Nordic Religions in the Viking Age

Thomas A. Dubois’s Nordic Religions in the Viking Age is a book that I’ve repeatedly considered adding to my popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, but it’s always just barely been edged out by others.

That’s not due to any particular shortcomings on this book’s part. It’s mostly just due to the fact that that list necessarily prioritizes introductory-level books on the pre-Christian religion and mythology of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. And while Nordic Religions in the Viking Age is reasonably accessible for the layman – it assumes no prior knowledge and is written in a scholarly but nontechnical style – it doesn’t really offer a direct introduction to pre-Christian Norse religion or mythology as a whole (with all of the necessary oversimplifications and overgeneralizations that such a project entails), but instead places those traditions in their proper anthropological and historical context.

That’s not a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary, in fact; there are already far too many introductory books on these topics out there, and far too few that go beyond the basics like this one does.

Pre-Christian Norse religion didn’t exist in a vacuum, and DuBois refreshingly focuses on the many permutations it underwent across time and space, the other traditions it was influenced by, and those that were in turn influenced by it. He shows how it was part of the ceaseless process of give-and-take that characterized the wider ancient and medieval European world, paying particular attention to the reciprocal interactions with the religions of the Sámi, Celts, Romans, and others.

DuBois also shows how Norse religion was never a monolithic or static phenomenon. Central elements of the cultic traditions of one town might have been strikingly alien to the town in the next valley, not to mention another settlement hundreds of miles away across the ocean. Differences across time might have been even more marked. All of this makes it a bit imprecise to even speak of a unified “Norse religion.”

One of the most fascinating elements of the book is DuBois’s discussions of how Christianity was part of this process. Of course, since Christianity has historically been quite beholden to the idea of a distinction between “true” and “false” religions and has set itself up as the sole representative of the former, its missionaries have often sought to replace the native religions of converted peoples wholesale. And they certainly sought to do that with the conversion of the Germanic peoples.

But that’s far from the whole picture. When Christianity was introduced to northern Europe, what prevailed for the next several centuries were hybrids of Christianity and native “paganism,” where the elements of one were impossible to disentangle from the elements of the other – just as had been the case with the various “pagan” northern European religions for millennia prior to the arrival of Christianity. Furthermore, as DuBois shows, the Christianity of the period was in many respects unlike anything we today would call “Christianity,” and was itself quite “pagan” in many ways. This made it that much more readily translatable into “pagan” practice and vice versa.

Nordic Religions in the Viking Age should be essential reading for anyone who’s already familiar with the basics of pre-Christian Germanic mythology and religion and wants to go further in the study of these topics. Highly recommended.

The Ultimate Online Guide to Norse Mythology and Religion