Chris Abram’s Gods of the Pagan North is an academic yet reasonably accessible history of the Norse myths. Working forensically through the various types of available evidence – archaeological finds, placenames, first-person accounts, skaldic poems and of course the great Eddas – he examines what myths might have been around when and what that might tell us about actual religious practice.
He’s particularly concerned with how the coming of Christianity affected the mythology, which he treats not as a static canon but as an evolving body of story that responds to sociocultural changes. It turns out that a lot of what we think we know about Norse mythology probably comes from well after Christianity reached Scandinavia – and well after Norse paganism stopped being practiced. Loki, for example, a figure that most modern adaptations of Norse myth put at their centre, is barely attested to in the actual pagan period; he crops up much later, in the determinedly post-Christian Eddas. The myth of Ragnarok Abram reads as a response to the coming of Christianity, and as in fact containing Christian elements in the sources it appears in: the old pagan world dying, destroyed by the division of the gods, to be replaced by a bright new Christian one.
I enjoyed this reading of the myths as historically contingent, evolving texts a lot. Abram also offers some fascinating insights into the varying quality of the different types of evidence and how much they can actually tell us about religion and belief. Archaeological evidence, for example, usually needs to be contextualised by textual evidence: so depictions of a man with a hammer slaying a giant serpent are only recognisable as Thor slaying the Midgard serpent because of the later written stories about the episode. But then, of course, the authors of those texts have their own agendas; much surviving textual evidence will have transmission errors and selective editing; and how much could post-Christian poets know about their pagan past?
Abram’s book is at least as good on the how of scholarship as it is on the what, which makes it valuable for anyone interested in old folktales and pagan religion. Apparently he’s working on a second book subtitled The Ecopoetics of Old Norse Literature; I’d be fascinated to read that, too.