Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book Review: Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H. Ellis and Davidson

This book is mainly concerned with the format and content of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion, using Celtic and Germanic equivalents as a means of reference, support and comparison. I first became aware of Scandinavian culture during my schooldays in North-East British Northumberland, and the lessons were mainly concerned with depicting the savagery of the Viking raiders, the terrible ‘dragon-headed’ long-ships, and their rape, pillage and plunder of civilized Anglo-Saxon Christian settlements. This image of barbaric ice-warriors filled my imagination until the mid-eighties when excavations and archeological discoveries at Coppergate in York revealed many interesting and highly cultured facets of Viking life in the early medieval period. Much of these discoveries and subsequent research was installed as a permanent museum now called ‘Jorvik Viking Centre.’ A decade later I was fortunate enough to visit Bergen in Norway and experience Scandinavian culture and history first hand, the Bryggens Museum is a showcase of finds from the earliest settlements and includes ceramics, rune inscriptions, artifacts and the remnants of a principally shipping and commercial society up to the Middle Ages. ‘Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe’ provided me with a carefully researched and detailed account of the spirituality of the Scandinavian peoples, and which brought to maturity all my previous thoughts and experiences, to an understanding which gives considerable credit to those communities for their important cultural legacy in Western Europe.

Davidson has used the medieval literature, myths and legends of Iceland and Ireland as the primary reference source for this book, in combination with archeological research papers and sources, and iconography of pre-Christian Western European culture. Her main inspiration appears to come from many scholars of Celtic history including Nora Chadwick, Kenneth Jackson and Anne O’Sullivan, although the principle thesis of the this research is prompted by Georges Dumezil (1898-1986) the religious historian who specialized in the analysis of Indo European civilization, who asks; “Is it possible to fit these Norse and Irish legends into a general pattern of Indo-European religious beliefs, extending back far into prehistory?” This question it seems, is the answer that Davison was seeking to explore within her work, and she does so with imagination, clear perception and a satisfying conclusion. With a broad yet defining sweep she manages to assess and investigate seven principle areas of interest; sacred places and sanctuaries, feasting and sacrifices, warriors, codes and rites and battle, land spirits, deities and ancestors, prophetic knowledge, divination and the priestly caste, cosmology and the other worlds, and finally the ruling gods, goddesses and divine pantheons.

Davidson begins with the earliest sources of a broad Indo-European culture, the archeological sources of Halstatt and La Tene circa 800 BCE to 200 CE, and follows through her study to approximately 1000 CE when the Scandinavian Vikings began to convert to Christianity. She employs free use and comparison of geographical sites, archeology, linguistics, cultural, social, artistic and spiritual characteristics, and the dynamics of the anarchical tribal-feudalism of early European society to successfully accomplish the study.

I grew up within a traditional working class British community. There, the cultural inheritance was composed of remnants of ancient and medieval thought whose pattern and dynamic has evolved little beyond the concept of ‘indentured servitude.’ Tribalism still exists albeit in the form of soccer, and beyond the boundaries of the town there still exists a fear, a dreaded chaos, of foreigners and disorganization. Even when I was a lad in the seventies there was a strong sense of home, a hearth and odd yet valid seasonal customs whose origins may be traced back a thousand years. From a curious perspective, even a psychological one, this volume (and others like it) helped me to understand my background, language, beliefs and culture from a traditional point, and subsequently how those traits still influence my perception and actions today. It is not a book that changed my life, but illuminated facets of it and helped me in understanding myself more.

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