- Paperback: 318 pages
- Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd; New edition edition (4 Feb. 1980)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0500271771
- ISBN-13: 978-0500271773
- Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 13.2 x 2.3 cm
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1 customer review)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,145,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Gods of the North Paperback – 4 Feb 1980
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
He doesn't bother to explain why, but I think I can guess. From a teacher's point of view, the book, with its eccentric and / or obsolete technical terminology, speculations offered as solid conclusions, and general lack of linguistic or critical rigor, must be an unwanted distraction. Branston wrote well enough that his readers may have trouble un-learning his mistakes; and there are a great many of them.
His infectious enthusiasm is still a delight; but it is not a trustworthy guide.
On the other hand, for those who are already somewhat familiar with the subject, and able to separate out medieval text from modern interpretation -- and H. R. Ellis Davidson's old-reliable "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe" (Penguin) might be sufficient -- it does offer new ways of looking at the material. Ways which may hold the interest of those apathetic about phonology and grammar, but not yet prepared to grapple with the difficult problems posed by the sources.
For example: the manuscript illumination of "The Tree of Jesse" which Branston offers (Plate 6) is not *proof* of his Freudian interpretation of the World-Tree Yggdrasill, and its collapse. But it does show that the medieval mind-set *could* have recognized the possibility, and that the suggestion is not merely a modern flight of fancy.
But recognizing that this is merely an interesting idea, not a fact, takes a willingness to employ critical thought in the midst of a "really good read." Not everyone will bother with it.
In addition, Branston quotes a variety of scholars, without too much worry about when they worked, and how their reputations have fared. The latter is perhaps justified in some cases; scholarship has its fads, and good work is good work.
But Viktor Rydberg, for example, has been out of favor for a long time, for reasons that are clear. Although by some accounts an excellent scholar by nineteenth-century standards (others call him an amateur), Rydberg was also a well-known Swedish poet, and the portions of his work available in English show that he had some trouble keeping his poetic syntheses of myths apart from his sober reconstructions. For Rydberg, parallel myths tended to become the same story, their diverse characters one set, under different names. And Branston tends to follow him into the same trap, albeit on a much more limited scale; a case in point is the section on Svipdag and Mengloth, in late poems sometimes included in editions of the "Elder Edda" (pages 255-262)
Now, another mythologist would point out that, in this case, although Svipdag and Skirnir are involved in similar stories of wooing, the former is the primary character in his story, the latter an agent for the real wooer, the god Freyr; and that most of the similarities belong to folktale motifs, and are not sufficient to establish an original mythological identity. Nor, therefore, do the poems shed any clear light on Norse paganism. This would be boring. But true.
I'm glad that I read Branston at a time when my interest in Scandinavian mythology was flagging, mostly for lack of interesting new material. And I'm glad I found a paperback copy of the 1980 edition when it was still in print. But I don't suggest him (or Rydberg, or Jakob Grimm -- see my review of "Teutonic Mythology") for novices. Too confusing. Too many brilliant errors; and too many just bright and shiny mistakes, as well.
Alternatives? One could start with the Davidson volume already mentioned, or its illustrated hardcover versions (slightly abridged), as "Scandinavian Mythology" (1969) and "Viking and Norse Mythology" (1996; yes, that is redundant). E.O.G. Turville-Petre's excellent "Myth and Religion of the North" is occasionally in print, but always too high-priced for the purpose, unless a library copy is available. Lindow's book, although organized as an encyclopedia, is quite readable, and very reliable. Andy Orchard's "Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend" from Cassell (with at least three variant titles on Amazon) is even more detailed, although more of a student's companion than an introduction, and is available in a handy mass-market paperback. Rudolf Simek's "Dictionary of Northern Mythology" is not for beginners, although especially good for language questions, and non-Scandinavian evidence; it is overdue for reprinting. (I've reviewed these last three.)
An abundance of choices: I *would* put "Gods of the North" somewhere on the list, but nowhere near the top.
From the northern "myths"I saw close parallels between the tales of heroes and "gods" in the Bible and in the works of Greek and Roman literature.The author, using the best of scholarship,tries to educate the reader of the possible similarities without overstepping,in my opinion.I concluded that some of these tales of northern Gods probably predate or parallel closely the Bible and the origin of Indo-European mythology.Dominate religions tend to digest smaller less defined religions so it seemed to me from a read of this book,that Christianity easily absorbed the northern "Gods'.Even though I realize that when those viking kings in their "ale halls",shouted hurrahs for Christ and bowed at his crucified image,I also believe, ever so slyly ,they remembered and revered "Odin" and his pantheon.Odin was also hanged to a tree and was blinded and went about at times disguised as a beggar to check on the human condition.I hadn't realized this before reading this book,but if you look at the names for the days of the week you'll realize how deep in our psyche these Northern gods go.All of the northern Gods however were subject to a higher authority so these Gothonic peoples were in fact "monotheistic" with a load of Gods to tell about and invent new stories on. The book gave me the impression that these Gothonic peoples had a rich cultural life and that there must have poets,authors and storytellers to rival any since that time.
So the next time you see a picture ofthat smiling,bearded,caucasion,haloed guy on your wall is it Jesus or Baldur?The crucified guy on the cross, could it be Odin embedded deep in our western European Scandanavian psyche.After reading this book it's a question that might cause a momentary reflection.