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Myths of the Pagan North [Hardcover]

Christopher Abram
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Mar 2011
As the Vikings began to migrate overseas as raiders or settlers in the late eighth century, there is evidence that this new way of life, centred on warfare, commerce and exploration, brought with it a warrior ethos that gradually became codified in the Viking myths, notably in the cult of Odin, the god of war, magic and poetry, and chief god in the Norse pantheon.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when most of Scandinavia had long since been converted to Christianity, form perhaps the most important era in the history of Norse mythology: only at this point were the myths of Thor, Freyr and Odin first recorded in written form. Using archaeological sources to take us further back in time than any written document, the accounts of foreign writers like the Roman historian Tacitus, and the most important repository of stories of the gods, old Norse poetry and the Edda, Christopher Abram leads the reader into the lost world of the Norse gods.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury 3PL (3 Mar 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847252478
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847252470
  • Product Dimensions: 24.3 x 16.1 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 395,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Undoubtedly a learned, informative and enjoyable account of the Norse myths that presents a new model for future discussion.' --BBC History Magazine

'The most innovative aspect of Abram's account is the emphasis he places on skaldic verse, particularly in his chapters dealing with the Viking Age and the conversion period. Though it would be easy to dismiss this poetry as no more ancient than the high medieval sources in which it is preserved, Abram takes the more challenging line that some of it is indeed originally from the pagan period and very successfully teases all kinds of new insights from it. He does this by paying much closer attention to the contexts and detail of this poetry than previous commentators... this is undoubtedly a learned, informative and enjoyable account of the Norse myths that presents a new model for future discussion.'

About the Author

Christopher Abram is Lecturer in Medieval Scandinavian Studies at University College, London where he teaches Old Norse mythology, literature and language. He has published scholarly articles on eddic poetry and is working on a volume about the transmission of the Icelandic eddas.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Aesir made Easier 23 May 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
Erudite but immensely readable, Christopher Abram gives us an in depth insight into the origins, development and transmission of the Norse myths which a non academic such as myself can understand and appreciate. Because the Vikings got such a bad press, we 'English' tend to ignore our Scandinavian cultural heritage, but it is a strong thread in the tapestry of our nation which should be more widely recognised. One word of warning though, the title does suggest that the book relates the myths themselves, and some indeed it does in an entertaining fashion, but this is not the books intention: for that one must look elswhere.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From the title this book appears to be a retelling of the Norse myths. The title, however, is a little misleading as this book actually looks mainly at how these myths were recorded, when and by whom. That said, this is an interesting and immensely readable book, an in depth look at a subject rarely, (if ever), looked at in modern literature; and highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the subject.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Analysis, Not Retelling 10 Mar 2012
By Karen M. Carlson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is not a retelling of the stories from Norse mythology, nor a general overview of the beliefs of the pre-Christian Norse (and other Germanic) people. Rather, it is an analysis of how the myths themselves may have evolved over time, and the place of the myths in the religious beliefs of people during the Viking Age (say around the year 900) and the conversion era (roughly around the year 1000 in Scandinavia).

The discussion of the sources goes into the problem of circularity: there are pictorial artefacts (e.g., picture stones) that appear to show scenes from well-known Norse myths. The pictures were made well before the myths as we know them were recorded, and thus provide evidence that the myths go back a long way before the myths were written down. But without the literary evidence -- especially Snorri's Prose Edda -- we would not know what the pictures were about. We use Snorri to interpret the pictures, then point to the pictures as evidence that Snorri's tales are authentic. Abram points out that this is not an invalid use of the evidence, but has limitations that should be kept in mind.

Abram questions some common assumptions about evidence. One idea I particularly liked is that grave goods do not necessarily tell us anything about beliefs in an afterlife. As a non-religious person myself, I can see the emotional appeal of burying a dead loved one with items identified with that person, although I do not believe in a hereafter. Nor do I think the reason a modern Christian would bury his mother with her wedding ring is because he thinks she will need it in heaven. Yet somehow we leap to the conclusion that early people provided their dead with grave goods because they expected them to use them in some further existence.

A good deal of the book deals with how myths developed over time, not just "organically," but in the hands of the skilled poets of the Viking and conversion periods (as well as in retellings after the conversion -- e.g., by Snorri and Saxo). Poems in the pre-Christian age may have been written, using traditional mythical material, but with new emphasis, new details, and in new combinations, to reflect the social and political realities of the time of writing. New stories may have been told about the old gods, within the framework of the existing mythology.

Not only did the mythology thus change over time, but Abram also points out that an authentic, traditional mythology is not the same as the religion of a group of people. Mythology and religion go together, but that does not mean that practitioners of a religion necessarily accept the mythology as literal truth. To again think of this in modern terms, many modern Christians do not literally believe that Jehovah created the world in seven days, some 6000 years ago; but the Christian creation story is still meaningful in their belief system and an important part of the culture of Christendom.

While this book is a serious scholarly study, it is accessible to the lay reader -- interesting and enjoyable to read as well as thought-provoking.
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