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

Jens Peter Schjødt, "Some Tendencies in the General Study of Religion: the Consequences for the Study of Old Norse Religion"

Religion in pre-Christian Scandinavia has been the focus of scholars from many disciplines, including archaeology, philology, folklore etc., whereas only relatively few historians of religion have participated in this field of study. This is not surprising as their interest has often been focused on other religious traditions – of the past, but especially the present. One of the consequences of this situation, however, is that new tendencies within the History of Religions (or Study of Religion, as some would prefer) are only to a minor extent taken into account in the scholarly study of the religion of the North. It is certainly true that there are a lot of specific problems in this academic field, primarily concerning the source situation, which cannot be solved with any specific religio-historical approach. Many of these problems have to be solved in an interdisciplinary group of scholars from the above mentioned disciplines. It is also true that some of the theories dominant in the Study of Religion will have no impact on the study of Old Norse religion, exactly because of the limits set by the source situation – compared to contemporary religions. When this is said, however, it should be accepted that some of the new ‘trends’ concerning method and theory developed in the general field of Religious Studies might have some impact on our view of both pre-Christian religion and of our possibilities for gaining knowledge about it.

My paper will address a couple of these more recent perspectives, such as (a) the notion of discourse, (b) the consequences of the whole deconstructivist movement and (c) the challenges it poses to the study of Norse religion. In short, this is about the deconstructivist critique of the almost essentialist approach prevailing in the Study of Religion and certainly also in the study of Old Norse religion, which presupposes that just as there are religions called, for instance, Christianity and Islam, there was a religion in pre-Christian Scandinavia (although with no name) having certain notions about certain gods and having certain rituals with a prescribed sequence of actions, as an almost orthodox ideal. The deconstructionists, however, have shown that this certainly cannot have been the case since religion in general was and is much more diverse than this essentialist view allows for. As mentioned, this certainly constitutes a challenge to our handling of religion in pre-Christian Scandinavia, and our view on this whole area has to be revised, not in total accordance with the deconstructionist view but taking some of these viewpoints into consideration and then continue on from there. I will thus argue that even if we cannot speak about the religion any more, there are nevertheless certain features connecting large parts of Scandinavia. Such features, however, can also be found by the neighbours of Scandinavia (e.g. the Germanic tribes to the south), which is the reason why we cannot completely avoid comparativism as a methodological tool when wanting to reconstruct Old Norse religion. The paper will take up again this old discussion about comparativism in the light of the new premises set by post modernism and deconstructivism.


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