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

John Lindow, "New Approaches to Pre-Christian Religions in the North"

There can be little doubt that the fields of history of religion and archaeology have the most to contribute to casting new light on pre-Christian religion(s) in the North. Nevertheless, the basis for all interpretation is in the end the textual record. In this paper I wish to suggest ways in which our understanding of this record, as it relates to pre-Christian religion, may be enhanced. In the first place, the turn to text as physical object—the manuscript(s)—is enormously important, not least as it applies to skaldic poetry, one of our most important sources. Rather than try to reconstruct a single text of relevant stanzas, we need to pay attention to manuscript variation and accept that the manuscript tradition probably passes down valid alternative readings—valid, that is, in terms of metrical rules and sense. In addition, when confronted with puns like the base-word reynir for Thor in Eilífr’s fiórsdrápa (tester or rowan) we must accept and explore the possibilities of multiple meanings. Pursuing the notion of text and object, we must have clear that we are often dealing with a poetic description of a physical artifact (shield, wall-carving), and we must therefore bring to bears theories of ekphrasis. Most important, however, we must always ask “where are we in time and space?” This question will of necessity greatly complicate the notion of a unified pre-Christian religion (already complicated by obvious variants in the myth of Thor’s fishing expedition; and cf. Schjødt’s paper for this conference), but it will also force us to put the textual tradition into a social context, not least one in which there were other religion possibilities, from Christians, from Finno-Ugric peoples, and from books that treated the paganism that Christianity met in its first centuries. This emphasis on time and space may itself pay dividends; for example, we may wonder whether the preponderance of poetry to Thor at the very end of the pagan period in Iceland reflects not only the particular circumstances of the meeting there and then between religions, but also the lack of social circumstances that we think characterized the worship of Odin.

 

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