Third book review: Hearth Culture

Image from goodreads.

Image from goodreads.

Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964.

The book I chose for the Hearth Culture requirement is Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson. Written in 1964, this book is still one of the most-read academic surveys of Northern European religion and mythology today.

Davidson, a 20th century antiquarian and lecturer at Cambridge, sets out to not only provide a concise and detailed survey of the Northern European Pagan gods and myths, but to draw together common themes, such as “the gods of battle”, “the gods of peace and plenty” and “the gods of the dead” in order to understand the cultural and religious context of the Northern myths.

Davidson writes: “The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons their perception of the inner realities.”

Davidson sets out to bring together the various poems and sagas that make up the myths of Northern Europe, here defined as the Scandinavian countries, Germany and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Davidson’s thematic sections present a very comprehensive survey of each of the Norse gods and their main myths and associations as well as the religious observances by which people worshipped them.

A review from the Heathen journal Odroerir says: “The strength of this book and the main reason for its popularity is that Davidson has been able to create an overview of the gods as they appear in myth, and how they were worshiped. She manages to bring the two together to form a picture of heathen belief and religion from a serious approach, in a lively and easy to read manner.”

Davidson writes in an approachable yet academic style and presents a generally well-balanced historic view of the development of both mythos and cultus in Northern European religion from around the time of the fall of Rome to the conversion of the Northern countries to Christianity, as late as 1000 CE in Iceland.

Davidson’s work is of its time, and sometimes this shows through, especially in the final chapter where she discusses the “passing of the old gods” and the adoption of Christianity. At times, Davidson sounds uncomfortably triumphalisitic, glossing over forced conversions and conflict, and suggesting that people flocked to the new faith because “the old faith could no longer offer men what they needed” and “the Christian conception of the relationship between God and man was immeasurably richer and deeper”.

Despite this, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe is an excellent introduction to the world of the Norse myths and presents both the stories of the gods and the religious practices of the people in an accessible and engaging way, drawing parallels and suggesting lessons we can learn from these old tales for today, which make the book a useful addition to any modern Pagan’s collection.

References:

Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964.

Odroerir, “Book reviews: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” [Online: retrieved from: http://odroerirjournal.com/gods-and-myths-of-northern-europe/ 27/03/2016].

 

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