I’ve been teaching Norse mythology in various classes over the last 8 years or so– mostly during the first couple weeks of my Reading and Composition courses, but the last couple years I’ve been able to touch on it in my upper division Scandinavian Folklore, Viking and Medieval Scandinavian History, and Old Norse literature courses. Now I am finally scheduled to teach an upper division course in Norse mythology, my favorite subject.
This comes with its perils. The internet is full of enthusiasts eager to tell you all about Norse myth and legend, and I expect that, despite my warnings, at least 2 or 3 students will make use of, or outright plagiarize, a Wikipedia article or some overenthusiastic… um… enthusiast (note that I previously had a somewhat deprecating reference to Ásatrú here in the first version of this post–have changed that now, as religious affiliation has nothing to do with my points here, and my friend Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology blog is in the process of adding an advanced degree in history of religion, emphasis on Nordic and Germanic heathenism, to the PhD he already has–so you can be heathen and educated, no prob there). Not that I have anything against either type of source apart from my course– I use Wikipedia all the time (it’s a casual resource, but that’s all I need when I’m curious about Linear B or the CMB), and the fact that there is such a fan-base for Norse material gives me some hope for my career. And it’s not like scholars necessarily get everything right (part of the problem is that some “enthusiasts” use older scholarship which has not stood up to later examination). Still, a scholar is invested in understanding these texts on their own terms, as far as possible. Strictly speaking such an understanding is an impossible task, but so is translation, and we do well enough there anyway (see Paul Ricoeur on the topic). In addition, these books and articles are read, reviewed and discussed by others who are similarly invested in understanding these texts– meaning, the author can’t just make up whatever he wants. Sure, it can devolve into a game or politics at times, but there are certainly a lot more checks and balances, as well as expertise, on the side of the scholars. Not to put down enthusiast websites– just to discourage you from using them in your course papers…
That said, there isn’t much need to go to Wikipedia or others for accessible, concise info about Norse mythology– there is plenty available for the novitiate from the academic sector, and not at the crazy prices you have to pay for your Physics or Chemistry textbooks. I am only planning on using three books in my course, aside from a course reader, but they are good places to start. First, there is John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs (also available in hardcover as the Handbook of Norse Mythology). This is a relatively concise and easy to read encyclopedia of Norse Mythology by one of the leading scholars in the field (also the head of my dissertation committee). In addition to the individual entries, the book starts with a chapter introducing the historical background (external to the myths) and a second discussing Time in the mythology (internal to the myths). Next, I am assigning the two Eddas as primary sources. Yes, there are lots of other relevant primary sources out there– excerpts of those will be included in the course Reader. The Eddas are a good place to start, though, so if you are hoping to get a taste for the medieval texts, try these two translations: Edda trans. by Anthony Faulkes, and Poetic Edda trans. by Carolyne Larrington (but note that a competing translation by Orchard is also available now, and pretty good as well imho). These are the best translations out there– doesn’t mean they are perfect or that one could not disagree with bits and pieces here or there, but I am quite happy with them and have been teaching them for most of a decade now. You can find out-of-copyright versions of the Eddas online, but I would suggest you not bother– the translations are horrible and portions are left out because they were too impolite for readers of the time.
What are the Eddas? Good question. Short answer: Edda (aka Prose Edda or Snorra Edda formerly known as Younger Edda) is a book of poetics written by the Icelandic Chieftain Snorri Sturluson in the first half of the 1200s, in which he happened to include a large number of Norse myths, wrapped up in a frame narrative which rendered them fictional for his Christian audience (Iceland converted c. 1000 CE). Poetic Edda (formerly known as Elder Edda or Sæmundar Edda), as we have it preserved, is a collection of poems about the gods and heroes, written c. 1270 (based at least in part on texts written earlier in the century) and mistakenly named Edda as well when rediscovered centuries later. Yes, there is a lot more to say about these, but that will have to be a separate post. I did write two Literary Encyclopedia articles about Prose Edda and Poetic Edda— unfortunately, you need to subscribe to The Literary Encyclopedia to get access (or get access through an institution which subscribes).
Other sources: Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology covers a larger number of topics than Lindow’s– but it is also going to be a bit bulkier and doesn’t have any of the introductory material that John’s book does, so I suggest you turn to this after checking out John’s Norse Mythology. Andy Orchard had a dictionary of Norse Mythology as well, but I don’t think it is available any more. Heather O’Donoghue has a book on Norse mythology and its post-medieval reception which I haven’t read yet– From Asgard to Valhalla. Looks interesting and I look forward to reviewing it more thoroughly at some point. I also recommend Thomas DuBois’ book Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, which is fairly accessible at the same time that it opens up new directions in the field. His book rests on the fact that the Viking Age was not a period of religious homogeneity– the pagan Scandinavians certainly did not have anything like the sense of orthodoxy that literate religions like Christianity have (and please note that this is not a put-down on heathenism– just a point re: the ways in which oral cultures differ from literate cultures). He explores the ways in which “standard” Norse paganism coexisted and blended with elements from the Saami peoples (aka the Lapplanders, though that is not the polite term now) and Christianity. A great introduction to some significant aspects of Viking Age religion. Hm, and let’s take this moment to remember that Norse Mythology (which was written down by Christians centuries after the conversion) does not necessarily equal Norse Religion– the relationship between the two has been argued back and forth on both the broad points and the miniscule details, and the matter will never be completely resolved. That said, there is certainly a lot we can say about Norse Religion– but I’ll return to that another time.
Out of all the “broad” readings of Norse Mythology in the last 20-30 years, I consider Margaret Clunies Ross’ Prolonged Echoes volume 1 to be the most important. Unfortunately we have now gotten to sources which are much less accessible, and you will have to check with your nearest university to see whether they have a copy you can read. Still, it is a great, theoretically-savvy and interdisciplinary interpretation of Norse Mythology as a system in the context in which it was written– Christian Iceland of the 1200-1300s. Not that everyone has loved it (I’ve heard people criticize some of the feminist elements of her analysis, though I’m not endorsing those criticisms by mentioning them) but I am a fan myself, and I expect it will remain influential for a long time to come.
Well, I would have liked to make a much longer list of books, but I’ve been too verbose and better shut it down– thanks if you’ve read this far. More books on Norse Mythology (and other topics) to come– probably with more focused topics or reviews from now on.
4/6/14: Wow, this is by far my most popular post on this blog. Please share if you have found this helpful or interesting at all! If you are interested in other Norse-myth/culture/lit/history posts, check out: my review of Orchard’s Edda translation, an announcement of ANOTHER new Poetic Edda translation plus a link to a cowboy version of one of the poems, my post on the term “Viking” and what it meant back in the days of the sagas, my list of ways to learn to “talk like a Viking” and my brief tips on dressing like a viking, some more book recommendations appended to a critique of the first episode of the History Channel’s “Viking” series, a short intro to the Eddic poem Hávamál, a discussion of and link to a documentary about the Viking age “Ulfberht” swords, a Mother’s Day post on powerful mothers in Norse myth and saga plus a Father’s Day post on a complementary topic, some notes on valkyrie love stories in Old Norse tradition, a link to one of my papers and book reviews on Cultural Memory and the sagas, and a post on one of the myths I’ve had the opportunity to study a few times, the abduction of Iðunn (illustration below).
And to complement the mythic reading list, here are some of my mythic pictures (don’t take these as canonical interpretations–just “fun” interpretations).🙂 Click the pics to go to the galleries they are in (or check out the galleries themselves at DeviantArt or Redbubble). If you really like it… you can buy it!😀