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Pantheon What Pantheon
Pantheon What Pantheon
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Date:February 3, 2016

This article might be regarded as a follow-up to several other papers and articles that the present author has presented in recent years on the subject of religious change and diversity in the Nordic countries during the Migration Period and Viking Age (see, for example, Gunnell 2007, 2010,2013 and forthcoming a). The papers in question echo in many ways the views increasingly expressed over the last twenty years or so that there is good reason for students and scholars to be highly wary of trusting the image of Old Norse cosmology and mythology presented in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.

There is no question that the Prose Edda(see Snorri Sturluson 1998 and 2005) should never be viewed as a Nordi Bible, reflecting a pan-Nordic or even Germanic pre-Christian worldview. To my mind there is equal reason to question Snorri’s implication (expressed in both the Prose Edda and, indirectly, Ynglinga saga) that all Scandinavians(including the Icelanders) believed in a pantheon of Æsir and Vanir gods who lived together in the same space (Ásgarðr) under the rulership (and fatherhood) of Óðinn, each having his/her particular social or natural function (see most recently Hedeager 2011: 7–13). It also applies to Snorri’s suggestion that all dead heroes went to Valhǫll (Snorri Sturluson2005: 32–34; see further Abram 2003; and DuBois 1999: 57–58).

Both of these ideas have often been taken to reflect beliefs that were accepted across the Nordic and Germanic area as a whole throughout the Viking period, if not longer. However, as the recent scholarship noted above suggests, the likelihood is that such views were probably geographically, socially and temporally limited, and that they belonged mainly to a particular elite militarily-orientated class living outside Iceland, in the close vicinity of the new class of ambitious area or national Scandinavian rulers that was evolving during the latter half of the first millennium (see further Gunnell 2013a).

What has perhaps distorted our view is that the skálds, the mobile media of the time who have provided much of our extant literary source material on beliefs relating to Óðinn’s leadership, were closely associated with this elite. Furthermore, it seems that Snorri himself preferred this foreign, elitist image of the cosmology. Nonetheless, it is clear that he often expresses quite different religious ideas in his Prose Edda to those found in Landnámabók  or the Icelandic family sagas, which might be said to give a better reflection of the oral traditions and “historical” beliefs of most people living in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, if not before.

Before proceeding any further, it is worth briefly summing up the present state of scholarly opinion noted above with regard to the nature of Old Norse religion (see also Nordberg 2012; and Schjødt 2012 in particular).As noted at the start, in recent years, numerous scholars have been arguing that the idea that of any set body of “Old Norse religious” beliefs, myths and rituals ever having existed over a wide area of space and time (similar to those known in Christianity or Islam) should be abandoned.

It has been suggested that instead of talking of Old Norse “religion”, we should be talking of “religious systems” (DuBois 1999: 7–8) or “discursive spaces” (Schjødt 2009) in which there was a great deal of variety around certain shared, linguistic concepts and a certain amount of shared cultural vocabulary (see also Shaw 2011: 10–11). In short, it now seems probable that like the Scandinavian folklore and dialects collected in the mid-nineteenth century, Old Norse religious beliefs and practices varied by time and space, largely in accordance with social practices and environments, depending on whether people lived in the mountains, or in the flat agricultural lands, by the sea, or on islands; depending on whether they were farmers, warriors or hunters; and also depending on the degree of social contact they had with people outside the immediate Nordic area.

As noted above, the same would have applied to concepts of death: indeed, there is an increasing feeling among scholars that the idea of Valhǫll is something that developed alongside the growth of “central places” and increase in the number of large-scale armies from the sixth century onwards, and that, as with the dominance of Óðinn, it focused around the military elite (see, for example, Abram 2003).

Originally Published

Terry Gunnell: