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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
July 2012

     Before we immerse ourselves in the details of Norse mythology, we need to pause for a moment to examine the basic nature and function of all myths.  Do stories that were current more than a thousand years ago have any relevance today in a world of electronic wizardry and the threat of global climate change?  This is a valid and important question to resolve for one's own peace of mind . . . and to be able to answer when posed by others.
     Contrary to common usage, myths are not falsehoods--intended to deceive--nor are they "make-believe" stories created solely for the entertainment of children.  While myths can be entertaining, they also draw upon powerful cultural metaphors to introduce, or re-enforce, basic societal values.  By embracing these values and sharing them with others, the listeners are able to see themselves as essential participants in something bigger than themselves--be it a family, a community, or a spiritual universe.  Thus these myths contribute to a strong sense of personal and cultural identity that helps each individual transition from childhood to adult life, singleness to pair-bonding, childlessness to parenthood, and--finally--from life to death.  Myths are, quite literally, the stories that guide and inform our lives, and that help us cope with the inevitable rough spots along the way.  For an extended discussion of the functions of myth, the interested reader should look into Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By and my own book The Northern Path.
     A word of caution:  mythic truths are metaphorical, not historical.  They cannot be proven--or disproven--in an objective sense, like a chemical experiment in a laboratory, but that does not justify dismissing myths as being
irrelevant.  Their value lies in the human attempt to explore and explain those parts of the outer and inner worlds that do not yet--and may never--lend themselves to objective testing.  Simply put, while science attempts to answer the "what?" and "how?" questions of theProse Edda universe, the question lying at the heart of myth is "why?"
     And now--at last, you may well be thinking--we come to the Norse myths themselves.  Our main sources for these stories consist of just a few literary works from the middle of the thirteenth century--a short enough time after the Christianizing of Iceland (where most of the myths were first recorded) that there was still an active poetic tradition that lent continuity to the beliefs of the past.  The antiquity of these myths in Scandinavia--even prior to the Viking Age--is confirmed by a variety of archeological finds.
     One of the two Icelandic sources was the Prose Edda (a. k. a. Younger Edda), which was written about 1220 A. D. by Snorri Sturluson, a prominent chieftain, poet, and historian.  This monumental work was intended to be a guide for budding poets on how to compose skaldic poetry, an elaborate form current at that time.  In choosing to use the Norse myths as examples for poetic allusions, however, Snorri also succeeded in preserving the stories themselves--and the lore they contain--for future generations.
     An anonymous collection of twenty-nine poems, the Poetic Edda (a. k. a. Elder Edda) was published later than the Prose Edda but contains at least some poems believed to date back to the Viking Age.  Half of the poems are myths about the gods; the other half deal with legendary folk heroes such as Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (later to be immortalized in musical drama by Richard Wagner).
     A Danish source from this period, the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, treats the gods as humans, greatly alters the stories from their Icelandic versions, and adds little to our understanding of Norse mythology.  Readable modern re-tellings of the principal myths can be found in Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths and my own book The Northern Path.


2012  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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