This book review is part of the requirements for the reading list for the Dedicant Path. It intends to fulfill the requirement for the Hearth Culture title.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.
Davidson sets out, in Gods and Myths, to bring together the various poems, sagas, epics, and tales that make up the myths of Northern Europe – specifically those of Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England. After a brief introduction, where she elaborates on some of the developments in archaeology and the study of the Norse cultures, she sets off to build the world of the gods as it was envisioned by various peoples across the northern landscape. She begins with Snorri’s Prose Edda and uses it to set up the basic world view, from Yggdrasill to Asgard, and then addresses the stories of the Gods.
This first section provides a solid overview of the main northern myths, and from there she delves into the assorted myths of each “category” of god myths: Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja, Njord, the gods of the dead, and the individual myths and stories that stand out in the sagas, like Mimir, the divine twins, and Heimdall. I found the most traction with the gods of the Vanir – Freyr and Freyja and their father Njord – the gods and goddesses of fertility, peace and plenty. Though these gods had different names in different places, there are threads of similar worship throughout, like being brought around in a wagon and the symbols of horse, boar, and ship.
Davidson ends this well-documented overview by examining the creation and destruction of the world, the great tree of Yggdrasill, the final battle of Ragnarok and the downfall of Asgard as it is presented by Snorri. Here in this last section is the myth of Ymir, the giant whose slain body becomes the world, followed by the great destruction of the world. Davidson argues that there is not a lot of Christian overlay in this description of Ragnarok, despite being recorded by monks, as the fears match up with folk beliefs, with other Indo-European beliefs about the end of the world, and with the geographical and natural perils of the north (203-4).
I was not overly familiar with the Norse myths before reading this book, and I’m glad to have read it. Davidson writes in a very approachable voice, and though at times the constant referencing of various sources can be a little overwhelming without prior knowledge of those sources, I appreciated the cross-referencing to the original tales. After reading this, though, I want to read some of the original sources for myself, especially the Prose Edda (which I already have a copy of). Davidson does a good job of organizing an otherwise disparate and somewhat scattered number of myths into coherent groups, though occasionally she does skip around a bit between them. As an overview of the myths, this is an excellent book, and this book is well placed on the reading list. I was pleasantly surprised at Davidson’s balance between keeping the gods as separate entities while still recognizing that they were clearly influenced by each other, and may or may not have originally been from the same source.
Unfortunately I didn’t feel like this book gave a lot of depth to my personal practice, but I think my lack of familiarity with these myths made that worse. I was absorbed in learning the myths more than I could really think about applying them to my practice. I did definitely feel drawn to the Vanir though, and I will be exploring that connection further to see if I can’t deepen those understandings. I definitely intend to keep this book as a reference.