Tracing Old Norse Cosmology.

This book was very kindly lent to me, so I’ll start off with a big thank you to the person to whom it belongs! ‘Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The world tree, middle earth, and the sun in archaeological perspectives’ is part of a series called Roads to Midgard (Vägar till Midgård). This series is the product of Roads to Midgard – Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives, a research project from Lund University. This book was written by Anders Andrén, the Professor of Archaeology at Stockholm University, published by the Nordic Academic Press and a new copy will cost you something in the region of £25:00/$35:00…so as you can imagine, I was very careful with my loaned copy! (Just a note; the prices here are a bit vague because I saw a lot of different prices when I tried to price-check this book – cheapest new copy was £20, but I saw other copies going for more than £50. As far as I could tell from the descriptions, they were the exact same book, just different retailers. Either I’m missing something, or you should be sure to shop around!)

The main body of Tracing Old Norse Cosmology consists of three separate essays; ‘In the shadow of Yggdrasill’, ‘A world of stone’ and ‘Whirls, horses and ships’. Before these are a preface explaining the book and ‘Old Norse cosmology as an archaeological challenge’, and after them is ‘Placing Old Norse cosmology in time and space’ and a *huge* list of references.

Old Norse cosmology as an archaeological challenge explains what the rest of the book is going to talk about. Though I’d say at least a basic knowledge of the Norse myths would help you a lot with this book, I don’t think it’s *absolutely* necessary because this chapter does discuss ideas such as Midgard or Jormungrund, the ‘ordered world’ where we live, and what can be learnt (or not) about pre-Christian cosmological ideas from literature such as Snorri Sturluson’s famous Prose Edda. Most importantly, it looks at the relationship between myth, ritual and cosmology and how this affects the material culture now being found and examined by archaeologists, as well as different attitudes toward interpreting archaeological finds.

In the shadow of Yggdrasill: The tree between idea and reality in Scandinavian traditions was probably my favorite chapter, and is to blame for my earlier post Yggdrasill is the World Tree of the Northern Tradition, and this chapter brings up loads of interesting ideas to think through. Of course, since this is an archaeology book, it looks to archaeological finds. The excavated Church at Frösö in Jämtland and Seahenge were fantastic to learn about. Of course, literal, living trees don’t last forever, so they’re difficult to study from an archaeological standpoint. So we also look at place-names and possible representations of trees, like tree-trunk coffins, standing posts like Irminsul, and artwork. Three-pointed stone settings, also called tri-radial cairns or tricorns, are discussed as possibly being representations of trees (seems convincing, especially given the ‘three roots’ of Yggdrasill). On the understanding that three-pointed stone settings are really ‘tree settings’, a lot of possible symbolism is discussed.

I struggled more with A world of stone: Warrior culture and Old Norse cosmology. I’m sure if I followed a warrior Deity or if I were a reconstructionist I’d have gotten more from it, and I’d recommend anyone falling into either of those categories to read it. It looks at Ismantorp, an early Iron Age ringfort from Öland, as well as other Scandanavian ring and hill forts, and looks at what function they may have served when in use and the possibility that they might represent cosmological ideas.

Whirls, horses and ships: Solar aspects of Old Norse religion was a very interesting chapter for me. A lot of ideas and things to speculate on. It examines picture stones on Gotland (and there are photographs, yaaay), the famous Sun-chariot from Trundholm and related finds, ideas about the Solar cycle myth from the Bronze Age with it’s night ships and mysterious mushrooms, Solar twins, possible social changes that affected mythology and religion, and a whoooole heap of other ideas. There are ideas about Old Norse religion that don’t really crop up in the Eddas, so that’s fascinating. It’s worth reading more than once!

Placing Old Norse cosmology in time and space talks about how damn complicated the study of Old Norse religions is, and how the archaeological evidence can help to untangle it, at least a bit. It recaps some of the conclusions from the previous three chapters, and looks at some of the factors that influenced society and religion, like the Huns and the Dust Veil. I like that this chapter points out how the Old Norse religion was not a monolithic, unchanging thing, but a world-view that changed over time and had regional variants.

I think this is a great book, especially for reconstructionists. I would probably say it’s a book to read once you’ve already got the basics of whatever modern path you’re following, though.

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