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The Enchanted Islands: A comparison of mythological traditions from Ireland and Iceland

The Enchanted Islands: A comparison of mythological traditions from Ireland and Iceland

By Katarzyna Herd

Master’s Thesis, University of Jyväskylä, 2008

Introduction: Ancient Europe was a home of many tribes, cultures and their beliefs. Before Christianity reached the most obscure corners of the continent, mythologies had a firm grip over the early European societies. They flavored the land and its people. The later conversion to Christianity did not destroy completely the previous, older cults. In some areas the old stories were erased almost totally, but every now and then a Christian monk, a true follower of a new faith, felt the need to preserve those mysterious legends of his ancestors. That was the case in Ireland and Iceland, where the two major mythologies, the Norse and the Celtic, were written down.

These two mythological traditions traveled for centuries across Europe and they took their final form at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It is quite remarkable that the myths of two big and influential pagan groups were preserved on two islands in the western corners of Europe. The geographical location of two islands, as well as the historical and cultural contacts between them, leads to many speculations about the possible influence of the mythical stories that were composed there. Many scholars, like Eliade and Herm, have drawn attention to some symbols and elements that are supposed to be similar, or from the same source, in both the Norse and Celtic mythologies. However, we cannot say anything with one hundred percent accuracy, and what is an obvious similarity for one scholar, is a mere coincide for the other.

Nevertheless, it is worth trying to compare these two traditions. The richness and vividness of both Nordic and Celtic stories is impressive. Furthermore, the fact that those myths were written down on two remote islands is quite remarkable. I intend to show similarities and differences, common patterns and unique features of both mythologies, and some of the interpretations (probably the most usual ones, and some of the more controversial ones); both of them are said to come from the same Indo- European source, but they reflect different features of this source (if there was only one main source). Moreover, I would opt for a broader context in my work. The mythologies were not exactly composed on those two islands, they were written down there. In order to understand the possible influences and borrowings we have to take into consideration earlier cultural contacts as well.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Jyväskylä

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