Of Fire and Water: The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an Eco-Mythological Perspective
By Mathias Nordvig
PhD Dissertation, Aarhus University, 2014
Abstract: The overall purpose of this dissertation is to address the subject of worldview in the context of Old Norse mythology. To this end, I ask the question:
(1) What is the constitution of the Old Norse worldview according to the literary mythological sources in terms of man’s relationship with nature? What is the relationship between the conceptual categories of culture and nature, or civilized and wild (byggð and óbyggð, innangarðs and útangarðs) as it is expressed in the æsir’s dealings with the surrounding world in the myth of Þórr’s Fishing Expedition, the Creation Myth, and the myth of the Mead of Poetry in the Edda version? How do the actions of the gods in these narratives express man’s mythical notions of his relationship with the land and sea in the Scandinavian and North Atlantic ecosystems?
To answer this question we must first establish what is meant by the term ‘worldview,’ because this is not at all clear or consistent in Old Norse scholarship. The term is used widely by scholars of different disciplines, from literature and religion to archaeology. The subject has grown in popularity over the past forty decades, and the term ‘worldview’ has become commonplace in scholarship. It often supplants the term ‘cosmology’ in the context of Old Norse mythology in interdisciplinary discussion, or in the juxtaposition of paganism and Christianity. It may also be used to describe a popular understanding of Old Norse religion and mythology contrary to a dogmatic or authoritative one. In other instances, the term is applied by some scholars as a designation for a social ideology that is essentially unconsciously implemented in society and individual life.
The term ‘worldview’ is diffuse and originates in the German philosophical term Weltanschauung as it is used by, among others, Dilthey, Jaspers, and Scheler, to denote an overall comprehension of the world by an individual or a people. This all-encompassing understanding of the world synthesizes, generalizes, and transcends the scientific as well as the non-scientific perception of reality and prescribes social conduct, values, and explanations for the surrounding world. This is a very broad definition and it is thus no wonder that the term finds many uses in Old Norse scholarship. Because of the lack of clarity regarding the term ‘worldview’ and its application, the above question, when paired with the fact that there are no verifiably concrete first-hand sources for the pre-Christian worldview of Scandinavia, brings with it two other important questions, namely:
1) If the literature of Old Norse mythology contains a specific worldview, what is the internal relationship between these texts? And;
2) What is the external relationship of the mythology to the surrounding world?