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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.

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I’ve been rather at odds with myself on the question of hearth cultures. I started this druidic journey pretty firmly convinced that I was going to stay in the Celtic pantheon that I was already familiar with. Unfortunately I’ve not felt myself overly connected to that pantheon in my devotions, to the point of not really finding that I like my options for devotional rituals. It just doesn’t “feel” right. I love keeping a hearth in my kitchen, but working with Brigit just doesn’t seem like it’s working out, for example. I’m not feeling any return energy.

So I’ve started looking around at other options, wondering if maybe my lack of connection to the Divine is a result of not trying to get in touch with the right Gods. I really enjoyed the Gaulish ritual I did for Yule, but resources are very thin about Gaulish paganism, and I’ve had trouble getting anything beyond a few web articles. I couldn’t do my hearth culture study book on Gaul, since I can’t actually find any books!

I’m getting to the point, though, where I’m going to have to face up to the possibility that I’m being drawn to the Norse culture. I keep running into things that make me feel like I should be looking there, even though I’m more than a little uncomfortable with some of the Norse gods. I especially seem to be running into mentions of Odin, which makes me nervous, for while I don’t know a ton about Odin, I do know that he can be a challenging patron.

On some levels, it doesn’t make any sense. My ancestry is Scottish and Italian, with a little bit of English and French thrown in. I don’t really have any Germanic cultures in my recent ancestry, and it seems like that’s a big pull for a lot of people who end up following the Norse Gods. I also know very little about their mythology (and what little I know seems dangerous!), and I’ve tried, quite unsuccessfully, to use Runes for divination in the past.

On the other hand, when you start seeing ravens (and other birds of prey), or realizing that your clueless dolt of an uncle gave you a set of runes for your birthday when you were 10 that you just can’t make yourself get rid of, or that you keep running into High Day rituals in the Norse Culture that look wonderful and strong and beautiful, or that your closest Pagan friend is an Asatruar… Maybe I’m just not getting the hint, you know?

I also have a much stronger relationship with the land spirits, and an increasing relationship with the Ancestors, things I’ve been told are very important in Norse Paganism, so that’s a welcome idea.

But I just… it doesn’t seem right, or something? I’m really resisting the idea that I should work in a Norse culture, for some reason I can’t yet put my finger on. Maybe it’s all of Asatru’s bad press bubbling up from my subconscious, or just the fact that I’ve never felt like it should be for me. Maybe I need to remember that I’m looking at the Norse part of ADF, and not giving up on this dedicant path, and that questions are what being on the DP are all about anyway.

Given my turmoil about it, I figured I should do a reading. I didn’t figure an ogham reading was the best bet, since they’re so strongly connected with the Celtic lore, so I decided to do a tarot reading instead. Of course, I thought of doing that reading while I was at work, so I used the tarot deck I have on my smartphone (Mystic Dreamer Tarot, if anyone’s curious), and did a little lunchbreak divination.

Three Card Spread: How Should I approach my search for a Hearth Culture?

  • The Heirophant – Learned Truth, a teacher, balance of belief with practice – can indicate that you know the solution but need to put it into practice. There are two ravens on this card, bringing messages to the Hierophant.
  • The Two of Cups – Strong, passionate relationship (not necessarily romantic). Two things that come together to create a third union that is strong, beautiful, and passionate
  • The Hermit – Self Knowledge, seeking the truth within yourself. Withdraw from outside sources and review all of your knowledge, understanding, and experience.

I didn’t set this card up as a past-present-future spread, and in fact I didn’t assign meanings to the placements at all, since I want an overview more than a specific set of answers. I prefer to look at how the cards interact with each other.

In this case, I think the Heirophant and the Hermit go together:

Learned truth and self truth provide the foundation for a profound and meaningful new relationship.

Hopefully the deep and meaningful relationship will be the relationship with the Divine that I’ve been looking to establish. It fits with the Dedicant Path as well, since both learned knowledge and self knowledge are goals of the DP. I also didn’t expect the cards to have a strong Norse symbolism (which isn’t something this deck is designed for), but with the two Ravens, I get a strongly Odinic feeling from The Heirophant card – even if the man in the card has both of his eyes.

I didn’t ask a particularly pointed question, so (as expected) I didn’t get a particularly pointed answer, but I think the reading is ultimately positive. In some ways, it’s a bit of a “duh” response, not anything I didn’t already know. I’ll keep searching though, and I’ve borrowed a copy of Gods and Myths in Northern Europe to start digging through. That’ll be the learned knowledge part, at least. And if nothing else, I can’t go wrong learning about it, and I’ll continue to do meditation and devotional rituals that attempt to suss this out.

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