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Where does Old Norse religion end?

Where does Old Norse religion end? Reflections on the term Old Norse religion

By Maths Bertell

Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives: Origins, changes, and interactions. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3–7, 2004, eds. Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert and Catharina Raudvere (Nordic Academic Press, 2006)

Einherjar are served by Valkyries in Valhöll while Odin sits upon his throne, flanked by one of his wolves. Image by Emil Doepler in 1905

Einherjar are served by Valkyries in Valhöll while Odin sits upon his throne, flanked by one of his wolves. Image by Emil Doepler in 1905

Introduction: When speaking of Old Norse religion, one needs to reflecton the term and what it contains, since it is not as unproblematic as it may seem at first glance. The term Old Norse religion holds a universe of concepts and ideas running off indifferent directions, making the religion look contradictory and inconsistent. I do not propose a different term, but a consideration of the problems and complexity of the religion when using the term. There is also a necessity to consider the relationship between the Old Norse religion and the surrounding indigenous religions, such as the religions of the Saami, the Finns and other groups of people in the immediate vicinity. How did the believers of the Old Norse religion perceive other religions, and to what extent did people from the outside get in contact with myths and rituals? The separation of Old Norse religion from other indigenous religions is made by language. This distinction may make the religions of groups with different languages seem more separated from each other than they necessarily were.

A lot of the seemingly contradictory information we have on Old Norse religion is due to the fact that the written sources are based on an oral tradition. The oral tradition and its reality is very different from the written and read tradition, so different that it might be hard for us to visualize. As research has shown, there are not only differences in how to systematize things but also a difference in what to systematize. Writing ability therefore seems to ruin much of the oral poet since the concept of a text interferes with the process of oral composition. The concept of a text also may give the notion of an author and a primary text from which all other versions have sprung and thus degenerated. The more time passes, the more inaccurate and corrupt the poem, the epic and so on, will become. This, however, is not the opinion of a person living in an oral tradition. To him, the story is correct when it is inline with his concept of the world. The oral tradition adapts to the time in which it functions. If anything, oral poetry is primarily functional and takes shape in social situations such as religious ritual, family, communal or work activities.

The tradition of recollection of the myths and legends of the Scandinavian Viking Age differs from its continental counterparts. The continental use of a harp as a backing instrument was dropped in favour of narrating in prose and thus saving the poetic meter for a few dramatic scenes and episodes where characters in the story spoke in their own words. The poetic dialogue form ended up mainly used in prose episodes. The poetic form developed into a more and more regulated affair where improvisation became almost impossible. Therefore prose took over the narration, allowing the presenter to dramatize well-known scenes from the Old Norse tradition. This leads to the conclusion that the prose mostly ended up being open to influences, which may be questioned. The oral tradition had varying degrees of improvisation. Most fixed was skaldic poetry, celebration hymns to the Norwegian kings. These poems also have known composers and thus differ from other poems such as those in the Edda. The skaldic poems are therefore more part of a “written” culture, even though they were orally composed.

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