Sources for Scandinavian religion

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The main literary sources for pre-Christian Scandinavian religious belief are:

References and comparisons are also often made by modern interpreters to works relating to other areas (and time periods), notably Tacitus' Germania and Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.

Skaldic verse as evidence for belief

The corpus of skaldic verse, which is generally held to change less than other texts in oral transmission due to the complicated rules for rhyme and alliteration, contains a number of poems about the gods and the supernatural, or referring to them. These are concentrated in ''The Elder Edda'', a name given to the poems of the Codex Regius and a group of similar poems often published alongside them in modern editions.

These poems give the most contemporary information on Scandinavian paganism, but their complex metre and obscure use of kennings do not make them easy to read or translate and although relatively stable they are unlikely to be entirely unchanged.

They also emphasise specific interests, rather than giving a full systematic description of beliefs or setting out how (or if) the relgion was organised.

Most of the information on the history of the gods comes from Völuspá, while other poems tell individual stories, such as Baldrs draumar about the death of Baldur.

Some of the poems, such as Vafþrúðnismál and Grímnismál are wisdom dialogues, giving a mixture of partially disjointed facts about the mythological world.

These different poems are sometimes contradictory, underlining the important fact that this was not a unified, dogmatic faith but an imprecise and varied set of beliefs.

There are also a large number of kennings used in the skaldic verse scattered throughout Old Norse literature that appear to refer to mythological events, which The Prose Edda sets out to explain.

Representations of Scandinavian religion in Christian literature

Contemporary and near-contemporary Christian texts, such as Adam of Bremen or the Vita Anskarii, are generally concerned more with efforts to turn Scandinavians away from their existing religion than to describe it. The descriptions they do give are frequently derivative, for instance the description in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum of a great temple at Uppsala - clearly based on the biblical description of the Temple of Solomon. Each text draws on those that went before, and there are signs that (like some modern historians) they used Tacitus' Germania, dealing with the tribes of the Rheinland centuries earlier, as a source for Scandinavian beliefs.

In common with other mediaeval accounts of non-Christian religions, there was a tendency to view and describe pagans in terms of Christianity-gone-wrong, rather than to seek to explore their actual beliefs.

The Prose Edda

Composed in the thirteenth century by a Christian monk, The Prose Edda should be treated with due caution when using it as a source for pre-Christian belief in Scandinavia.

Snorri was explicit that his purpose in preparing the work was to enable the continued understanding and composition of skaldic verse. Mediaeval Christianity is not famous for its tolerance of other religions, and took a dim view of the beliefs that preceded it. Yet without some understanding of Scandinavian paganism, the references and kennings of skaldic verse are incomprehensible. Snorri needed to find an acceptable way of making that information available.

So as with other representations of Scandinavian religion in Christian literature, we find Biblical and political influences on Snorri's writing. He offers a different, systematised geography of the mythic world, the tripartite division of which clearly resembles the three continents of the Isidorean mappa mundi, complete with encircling sea. Throughout the first part of his Edda, Snorri refines the world found in the Elder Edda as needed to deliberately construct a coherent narrative enabling the educated Christian to understand and refer to pre-Christian material.

In reading Snorri, one must always remember that he is telling us not the origins of the kennings he wants to be understood, but an explanation that will fulfill this and be acceptable to the social setting in which he is writing.

Saga evidence

It is no surprise that the Sagas too are unreliable, dating to several centuries after the events that they describe and shot through with the politics of their own time. However, they do not generally condemn paganism (although there are exceptions).

They do include a number of interesting perspectives, such as the story of Iceland's conversion to Christianity, told in Njals' Saga, where an apparently Pagan or magic ritual is used to decide that Iceland should thereafter be Christian, though private acts of paganism would not be punished. Whether the details of the ritual are accurate may never be known, but it is a neat compromise that would as far as possible satisfy both sides while giving in to the inevitable outcome of economic sanctions imposed by Norway. This highlights the political and sometimes expedient nature of conversion, and the division between official creed and private practice.

As with other sources, there are references to feasts and sacrifices, to Goðar and to Hofs. The archaeology does support all of this, for example at Hofstaðir there does not seem to have been a temple as suggested in some Sagas - but there are signs of large-scale (ritual?) feasting mentioned in others such as Gisla Saga.

Again, paganism is represented as very similar to Christianity, with Eyrbyggja Saga and The Saga of Hákon the Good suggesting local Temples served by Priests in a parish-like way, supported by a "temple tax" similar to the tithe.

It is likely that references to magic and superstition are a truer reflection of pre-Christian belief than the organised structures mentioned.