30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Christopher Abram, "Archaeological versus Architectural Models of Norse Mythology. Or: Is Going Forwards the Way Forward?"

In this paper I shall examine the methodological foundations of the study of medieval Scandinavian mythology and propose two new models of how we might approach this subject in future. My argument is based around two propositions: first, that we might use a visual metaphor for our approaches to Norse mythology by looking at it either as an archaeological site or an architectural construction. Since the beginnings of the ‘scientific’ study of Norse myth in the nineteenth century, the archaeological model has generally been ascendant. This situation, I argue, pertains to this day. The archaeological approach, which I accept is essential to the study of Norse pagan religion, takes as its starting point the idea that we have remains of Norse pagan cultures that have been effaced or covered over by layers of accretion—cultural spoil. The task of the archaeological mythographer is to strip away the layers of irrelevant detritus, to identify the stratigraphies of narrative and belief beneath the surface, and to locate the most valuable artefacts from this record that can then be put on show as truly representing the reality of Norse myth. In my view, this approach to mythology is problematic, because the basis for our disambiguation of valuable artefacts from useless effluvia is often arbitrary. Let us say that we reject as an example of a Norse myth any text that displays signs of Christian influence, or else excise those Christian traces: on what grounds do we make this decision? I suggest that all too often the conclusions of an archaeological mythography rest on unwarranted a priori assumptions or simply wishful thinking. And, like real archaeologists, members of this school of thought are always apt to adopt a religious interpretation by default when faced with an artefact that they do not understand.

I propose, following Andrew von Hendy and others, that we should view mythology as a construction, and that we might usefully apply an architectural metaphor to help us conceptualize these constructive processes. If we see a cathedral, we appreciate it holistically; we do not ignore everything visible and pay attention only to its foundations. The building’s foundations can be identified with the pagan religion out of which Norse mythology grew: but we are well aware that we cannot see them from where we stand. However, we can also discern that the whole visible edifice – standing here for the whole of the mythology – was not built in one piece. It grew over time, reflecting the changing needs of the community it served, the aspirations of its builders and the fashions of the day. And it was constructed according to blueprints: a cathedral does not become so magnificent by happenstance. The same is true of Norse mythology: what we see is not a field with a few suggestive bumps in it, but a fully formed edifice that has been produced by the work of man. We can see the different phases of its construction and assess the achievements of generations of builders, and we should recognise that each craftsman has left his stamp on his or her section of the building. I shall illustrate my points by reference to the mythologies created by the poets in the circle of Hákon jarl Sigurðsson in the tenth century and by Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth.

The second strand of this paper proceeds from the ideas inherent in the architectural model. Whereas the archaeological method attempts to take us as far back in time as possible, into an idealized but ever-receding pagan past, I should like to propose that we adopt the attitude that myth gets bigger over time as it approaches us, rather than smaller; myth is moving towards us rather than we away from it. New myths are being told, new interpretations being made, all of which add new layers to the mythic construction. If we view the world of myth as constantly receding from us with the passage of time, we stand no hope of catching up to it. But if we see Norse mythology always as Myth Now, we may reach an understanding of how it has become what it is, rather than simply lamenting our inability to find out what it was. So as we take historicizing perspectives on the construction of myth we can see the process of how myth has developed in action. Myth grows and changes—it does not diminish—and if we conceive of Norse myth as being in a constant state of growth, we can be sure of its remaining a lively and productive nexus of debate for years to come.


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