Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Swedish scholar Per Vikstrand’s book Gudarnas platser is a Ph.D. thesis in Nordic languages, published in 2001. The book is part of a larger project aimed at mapping all Swedish place names in a larger atlas. Even though the book has an overwhelmingly linguistic approach, Vikstrand begins his study by discussing the different aspects of place names as a source for knowledge of ancient belief and religion, as well as the unique role that place names often take on as part of an overall society that might have changed profoundly in every other aspect. The project discusses about 25 different name elements found in the area of study (namely, the areas around lake Mälaren in Sweden, including Södermanland, Uppland and Västmanland), and has been split up into one overarching chapter for each name element, including sub-chapters for a varying range of aspects unique to the specific name element at hand. I will be summarizing Vikstrand’s project, hopefully giving a comprehensive overview of its contents, goals and ultimately – its achievements. The review will finish by concluding my critique towards the book.

In the first chapter of the book, Vikstrand discusses the nature of a location, its name and its role throughout history. He begins by quoting British archeologist Christopher Tilley, saying that the naming of a place is essential for preserving the identity of a location – for making it into a place (Vikstrand, 2001, p. 18). Vikstrand argues that places in and of themselves contain three dimensions that interplay in a very complex manner. These dimensions are (1) geographical location, (2) its meaning (“meningsinnehåll”), and (3) its name. The author interestingly points out that geographical location doesn’t necessarily have to be the most important feature of a place when it comes to its role as a place for religious activity, quoting two examples during the early middle ages where churches were moved from their original location, “retento sibi suo antiquo nomine”, ‘retaining its old name’ (ibid, p. 19). He argues that the name of a place is far more than simply a label denoting a passive reference to the reality in which the location finds itself (i.e. grove, lake, island, etc.), but that the name itself can give a place new meanings and give rise to folk tales and myths, perhaps mainly through people’s perceptions and interpretations of its meaning in later times (ibid, p. 20, p. 31).

Vikstrand continues by pointing out that sacred place names appear to be a global phenomenon, being found in practically every part of the world, although some cultures appear to have been more keen on naming places in accordance with their religious association (Vikstrand, 2001, pp. 30-31). Because of this, the author argues that place names are one of the key sources used by religious scholars today to study religious practice in many parts of the world, perhaps even more so in Scandinavia. Vikstrand reasons that sacral place names are linguistic sources for religious knowledge whose importance can easily be compared to that of skaldic poetry, sagas or oral tradition (ibid, p. 32). One of the most important features as regards the importance of place names and their high reliability as source material for religious studies, is that they oftentimes originate in pre-historic society. Even though the interpretation and linguistic complexity of place names is a source for heated debate, they are to be considered contemporary sources for knowledge, that sometimes has to be given intepretative prerogative (“tolkningsföreträde”) (ibid, p. 32). Vikstrand also points out that place names are often times representative of social life, because of the fact that place names originate through spontaneous formal discussion, from everyday communication between individuals. While there is good reason to believe that sources such as skaldic or eddic poetry have its origins in a higher social strata, names tend to be formed through religious beliefs rooted in a broader social environment (ibid, p. 33). He is also careful in pointing out that even in Scandinavia, many sacred places did not have sacred place names, which creates a problem of representation. What this means is that only some parts of the landscape may have its definite religious or social role identified through its name, where many other places can only be speculated to have had religious meaning (especially places with name elements known to have been used for religious practice, but that wasn’t necessarily always used for it, such as ö, åker or lund) (ibid, p. 21, p. 31).

Vikstrand’s study has been limited to the region around Mälaren in Sweden. The reason for this, he argues, is (apart from plainly size-related reasons) that the area has a high concentration of place names that could be considered sacral in meaning, as well as the fact that the area appears to have been reasonably culturally homogenous during the Iron Age (Vikstrand, 2001, p. 36). Vikstrand has put a lot of effort into deriving original, pre-historic forms of both stems of the compound words discussed in the book. A couple of the finishing chapters are dedicated solely to words found almost exclusively as second stems of theophoric place names. The author also points out that in examining place names, it is almost always possible to find alternative, non-sacral explanations (a view prominently propagated by Jöran Sahlgren), but that this dilemma can often by resolved by studying the spatial and toponymic context of the location (ibid, p. 40). Before continuing his book, Vikstrand finishes by arguing that Sahlgren’s argument in many cases is plainly false, and that in many areas in Scandinavia, especially in the Mälaren region in Sweden, sacral place names are an expected and extremely frequent phenomenon, rather than an exception (ibid, p. 53).

The first name to be examined by Vikstrand is the rather problematic Frö. Here, Vikstrand entertains the possibility of Frö stemming from proto-Norse *FrauiaR meaning ‘den främste’, but also considers Lennart Elmevik’s suggestion that it stems from Old West Norse *freyr meaning ‘fruktbar, som är grobar eller är tjänlig till utsäde’. Vikstrand leans toward the Elmevik explanation, pointing out that the Old Swedish equivalent of Freyr, *Frø, is extremely common, most commonly appearing with the genitive ending Frø-s- in Swedish place names, but also occurring with the exceptions Frustuna and Frostuna (Vikstrand, 2001, pp. 55-56). Vikstrand continues to discuss whether or not the idea of Frö as the blótgoð svía is correct. It has been suggested that the many Frö names in Mälardalen supports this notion, but here the author points out the apparent lack of Frö names around the cult center in Uppsala, where Ullr is more prominent. Elias Wessén explained this by suggesting that Frey/Frö is the inheritor of Ullr, a notion that Vikstrand rejects in his book. He points out that there is a curious discrepancy between the mythological material and the toponymic material in terms of the importance of different gods in different places – to which he has no real explanation. He presents a couple of arguments which he then proceeds to contradict (ibid, pp. 57-59). All-in-all, Freyr appears 15 times in the examined material making him a fairly prominent god in the area.

Freyja/Fröja is a complicated diety in linguistic terms, and Vikstrand recognizes the complexity in surveying the name. Freyja probably had the meaning ‘förnäm kvinna, fru’ in Old West Norse, but the relation to the word Freyr is very complicated. Freyja is a feminine ōn-stem, meaning it has dropped the genitive ending in Old Swedish, but even so, Vikstrand points out that the diversity of place names taking on and retaining or changing the suffix through different areas, through different times, makes it extremely difficult to make an absolute statement about Freyja place names (Vikstrand, 2001, p. 75). A better way of assessing Freyja place names, according to Vikstrand, is to consider toponymic context. In many areas, the distinction of feminine and masculine genitive endings has been contained, meaning place names such as Frösvi can be found in the same region as Frövi. One of the biggest problem, however, is that the feminine Frö name is identical to the adjective frö, meaning ‘grobar, fruktsam’, making it even more difficult to determine whether or not the place name is actually theophoric (ibid, p. 76). Vikstrand points to the likelihood of many frö names in fact meaning ‘fruktbar’, rather than being theophoric, largely because of the context in which these names are found; namely, often around “flacka höjder” (ibid, p. 93) which are normally used for sowing.

Njörðr/Njärd is a name that in Old Swedish appears as Njärd and whose original meaning is difficult to assess, largely because of its etymological development, crossing a masculine-feminine border through the years (Vikstrand, 2001, p. 101). Its meaning appears, however, to have been ‘(magisk) livskraft’ (ibid, p. 113). Interestingly, Vikstrand strongly opposes (ibid, p. 113) the idea that Njörðr has any connection to water in Nordic place names, which marks another prominent discrepancy in comparison to the mythological tradition. He argues that a couple of names along the cost of Norway “på tvivelaktiga grunder” had been interpreted as being Njörðr, but that in any case, Swedish Njörðr names appear, contrary, in obvious inland environments, and even appears to have a possible connection to mountains (ibid, p. 106-107).

Óðinn/Oden is the next name element discussed by Vikstrand. Here, he points out that the word originally might have stemmed from Old West Norse óðr, meaning ‘rasande’, or ‘ande, själ; förstånd’. This name appears in Old Swedish most prominently with the genitive forms Odhin-s-, Odhen-s- or sometimes in the reduced version On-s-. In his study material, Vikstrand has identified a total of 10 names that can be considered old references to the god, with a wealth of other names with possible references. Many other names have attestations that appear only after the 1500’s (ons-being one of them), and it is therefore difficult to support the idea that the name is actually a contemporary reference to the religious deity. The author continues to discuss the previous assumption that theophoric names normally did not occur at all together with compound endings signifying a place of habitation (“bebyggelsebeteckningar”), i.e. -sta/-stad or -by. He rejects this notion, and points to the idea that such endings very well could have had a meaning beyond that of a place of habitation (Vikstrand, 2001, p. 124). One important point Vikstrand brings up is the possibility of Odhin- names having been references to personal names rather than being theophoric. Even though the attestation of such personal names are very rare, they do occur, and Vikstrand surveys the possibility of this by going through its linguistic history (ibid, pp. 115-119). What makes the Odin names complex is, according to Vikstrand, the four major ways of explaining the name: (1) as a male name, (2) a place that has taken on Odens- or Odins- simply through linguistic similarities, (3) places that have taken on its name as an inspiration of similar names close by, (4) and later constructions of the name for cultural purposes. Vikstrand argues that Óðinn as a name of a supernatural being has lived on all throughout Nordic history and appears frequently in folk tradition and in place nicknames (“smånamn”) (ibid, p. 130). And, finally, (5) it can be genuine contemporary references to the god from pre-Christian times (ibid, pp. 131-132). Importantly, Vikstrand discovers another discrepancy in the scholarly tradition and in place names. The idea that Óðinn as a god is part of a younger tradition in the Nordic countries, and may have migrated upwards, is not reflected in the place names, where Óðinn is found more frequently in the northern regions of Uppland rather than the expected Västergötland, in sources before 1550 (ibid, p. 139).

Tor is the next theophoric name element discussed by Vikstrand. It stems from a pan-Germanic word meaning ‘åska, thunder, dunder’ and is reflected in many dialectical variations such as torsdön (ibid, p. 141). Vikstrand begins by discussing a couple of problems related to identifying theophoric Tor names. One of those problems is that Tor has sometimes been equated with the adjective torr, meaning ‘dry’, and in some cases possibly with *tordh meaning ‘smuts, dy’. Another problem is the misassociation of the personal name, Tor or Tore with the god name (ibid, p. 144). Vikstrand argues that Tor was an important god in the Mälaren region, because of the fact that he is found so prominently in the area (ibid, p. 145). Vikstrand argues that Tor might have been associated with central places, because of the spatial location of the place names involving the theophoric name Tor (ibid, pp. 162-163). Once again, interestingly, Vikstrand finds that the place name evidence is contradictory to the mythological tradition for the region. Tor appears to have been in an extremely strong position in this region, and the names, the author argues, are well integrated into the old living areas of society, and appear to be of very old age as well as of central location within the landscape (ibid, p. 165).

Ull is the last theophoric name element discussed by Vikstrand. The name has retained its original Old West Norse stem Ull-r into Old Swedish, but might stem from gothic wulþus, meaning ‘härlighet’ (‘splendor’) or possibly ‘den utomordentligt sköne’ as an extension of Snorri’s fagr álitum (ibid, p. 166). Ull is easier to establish as a theophoric name because of its very frequent compound combination with vi, but the author considers the possibility of the name in some cases (i.e. Ullkärret) referring to a type of vegetation, sometimes attested as ull, ullax or ullgräs (ibid, p. 167). In the studied material the author finds 9 Ull(e)vi and one Vi that possibly might have originally been *Ullarvi, as well as numerous other combinations including -åker, -tuna and -lunda (ibid, p. 168). Vikstrand points out that Ull is different from certain other god names, in that it doesn’t necessarily occur in either central places or in contexts that indicate high social status. As opposed to previously discussed names, Ull never appears in a name for a socken (an name for a type of administrative divisions used in the old days), whereas both Odensvi, Torsvi and Frösvi are found as names on socknar (ibid, pp. 173-175). Vikstrand also discusses the possibility of ull in some cases deriving from proto-Germanic *wellan, with the meaning ‘sprudla, bubbla som vätska i kokande tillstånd’. This would be true for the cases in which Ull is found in water-related names, such as Ullfjärde, Ullervattnet, Ullbro and Ullånger. Was Ull the primary god amongst the Swedes? Vikstrand asks this question despite his thesis not being primarily concerned with these types of questions, but he argues that Ull holds a unique position in that it links several cultural regions within mainland Sweden, but, extraordinarily enough, also with Gotland – an island that is normally found to have a quite distinct cultural character (ibid, p. 188). Vikstrand ends his chapter by stating that Ull(e)vi is a defining place name for all of the studied east-Swedish area, suggesting that the common feature in this region might have been the god Ull, who was being worshiped in a religious shrine called vi (ibid, p. 190).

From here on, Vikstrand discusses non-theophoric name elements, and for the sake of length, I am going to quickly summarize the different words he mentions. The first word discussed is *al which he argues could very well stem from Gothic alhs, Old English ealh, and Old Saxon alah meaning ‘heligt område; tempel’. The name is quite prominent in Swedish place names both as first stems and second stems in compound words, and uniquely as simply Al. It was very likely the name for a gathering place with religious association (ibid, pp. 205-206). The next element discussed in harg, from Old Swedish *hargher and its meaning in Old West Norse is most commonly understood as ‘stenhög; helgedom’ (ibid, p. 207). In practice it most likely referred to a type of terrain that might have been sacred (ibid, p. 225). One unique feature is its use in names for socknar. Vikstrand then goes on to the element helig whose original meaning most likely had connotations of ‘odelad, oskadd, frisk, oförstörd, oförstörbar, okränkbar’, and most commonly is seen in combination with the element ö. Vikstrand also talks about hof, which in Old West Norse meant ‘tempel, gård där det hålls blotfest’, and is the same word as Old High German meaning ‘gård, besittning, förgård’ (ibid, p. 253). Its original linguistic meaning, Vikstrand argues, has been ‘mindre höjd’ (ibid, p. 268, p. 271). Because of the mythological tradition, it is reasonable to believe that the word denoted a building used for religious purposes. The word is not found in especially central places but is connected to older habitation. Vi is the single name element discussed the most by Vikstrand. The word means ‘helig plats, helgedom’, and is a substantivization of the proto-Germanic adjective *wīha. The word is found both as first and second stem compounds. Vikstrand also discusses the word åker but comments that few of the actual occurences have sacred meaning, those being connected with theophoric names such as Frösåker, Ulleråker and Torsåker (ibid, p. 364).

Vikstrand finishes his book by talking about three primary toponymical dimensions of sacred landscape: (1) the normal Iron Age settlement, (2) the communal central area (“kommuna centralorten”) and (3) the aristocratic central area. All areas are characterized by unique features in terms of name element distribution (ibid, pp. 416-417).

In summary, Vikstrand’s work is as exceptional one. The book is extremely comprehensive, and Vikstrand has obviously put a lot of effort into making the book understandable and reasonably organized. Each name element is thoroughly investigated both in terms of etymology, local variation, local characteristics, name element compound combinations and possible religious meaning. Having finished the book, one can not help but crave for a comprehensive study covering the whole of Scandinavia. Additionally, Vikstrand makes some very interesting conclusions in terms of the discrepancy between mythology and oral tradition, and toponomy, where deities such as Ull appear extremely frequently in the landscape, but is almost extinct in the sources.