Trees as a Central Theme in Norse Mythology and Culture: An Archaeological Perspective
By Amanda Gilmore
Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Vol.23 (2016)
Abstract: This article, the inaugural winner of the journal’s Gurli Aagaard Woods Undergraduate Publication Award, combines the analysis of ancient literature with an archaeological approach in an effort to further interpret the presence and significance of trees in medieval Scandinavian culture. The analysis of textual references to trees such as Yggdrasill and Barnstokkr found in the Norse works Völuspá, Grímnismál, Gylfaginning, and Völsunga Saga, are combined with academic articles, juxtaposed with the examination of archaeological sites at Fröso,Herresta, Bjarsgård, Österfärnebo, and Karmøy, and integrated with modern Scandinavian attitudes to explore an interest in tree-human relationships, literature, and archaeology in medieval Scandinavia.
Introduction: The continual theme of trees in Norse Mythology is important to our understanding of the cosmology of Norse Mythology. In the texts Völuspá, Grímnismál, Gylfaginning, and Völsunga Saga, the tree is used to symbolize and explain important aspects central to Norse culture. Through an examination of this textual evidence, alongside archaeological evidence, including most notably a church in Frösö, Jämtland, a stone structure in Bjärsgård, a rune stone at Österfärnebo, and an examination of the concept of vårdträd, this essay explores the idea of trees as guardians, and ultimately as a significant theme in the understanding of Norse Mythology and its connection to Scandinavian material culture.
Comparing the literary sources we have in these Icelandic texts with past and present archaeological findings throughout the Scandinavian landscape demonstrates the significance of the tree as fulfilling a protective, beneficial role in Norse literature and culture—both past and present. This article ultimately seeks to explore the benefits of comparing the study of ancient literature with archaeology in seeking a comprehensive understanding of the importance of trees in medieval Scandinavian culture and how this importance is understood in modern Scandinavian discourse between the fields of archaeology and literature study.