2013: Old Norse Mythology in its Comparative Contexts

Wednesday 30 October


17.00-17.15         Welcome

17.15-18.30         SCHJØDT Jens Peter (Aarhus) “Pre-Christian Religion of the North and the Need for Comparativism: Reflections on Why, How, and with What We Can Compare” [1]

18.30-20.00         Reception and Exhibition of Old Norse Materials at Harvard: Houghton Library

20.00-20.30         HUGHES Shaun F.D. (Purdue) “The Icelandic Manuscripts at Houghton Library” [2]


Thursday 31 October


Thursday - Panel One

08.30-09.00         Welcome and Dean Sorensen’s remarks


09.00-09.30         DUBOIS Thomas A. (UWisconsin) “Nordic Mythologies: An Areal Perspective”[3]

09.30-10.00         LINDOW John (UC Berkeley/Uppsala) “Comparing Finnish/Karelian and Nordic Mythologies”[4]

10.00-10.30         COLE Richard (University College London/Harvard) “Snorri and the Jews”[5]


10.30-11.00         COFFEE BREAK


Thursday - Panel 2

11.00-11.30         HERMANN Pernille (Aarhus) “Memory and Old Norse Mythic Texts”[6]

11.30-12.00         HESLOP Kate (Zürich) “Twice-Told Tales: Framing Mytho-Heroic Narrative in Textual and Visual Media”[7]

12.00-12.30         GLAUSER Jürg (Zürich and Basel) “Meads and Media of Myths”[8]


12.30-14.00         LUNCH BREAK


Thursday - Panel 3

14.00-14.30         KAPLAN Merrill (Ohio State Univ) “Vǫlsa þáttr: Making Paganism”[9]

14.30-15.00         GUNNELL Terry (Háskóli Íslands) “Blótgyðjur, Goðar, Mimi, Incest and Wagons: Oral Memories of the Religion of the Vanir”[10]                                        

15.00-15.30         JÓHANNA Katrín Friðriksdóttir (Harvard / Stofnun Árna Magnússonar) “Literary Reworkings of Norse Mythology: The Afterlife of the Norse Gods in Late Medieval Icelandic rímur[11]


15.30-16.00         COFFEE BREAK


Thursday  - Panel 4

16.00-16.30         WELLENDORF Jonas (UC Berkeley) “The Æsir and their Idols”[12]

16.30-17.00         SAMPLONIUS Kees (Amsterdam) “Magic Wands and Mighty vǫlur: The Search for Scandinavian Paganism”[13]

17.00-17.30         ZACHRISSON Torun (Stockholm) “Völund was Here: An Archaeologically-Anchored Myth”[14]


17.30-18.30         RECEPTION


Friday 1 November

Friday - Panel 1

09.00-09.30         PUETT Michael (Harvard) “Thinking about Old Norse Mythology from a Comparative Perspective” [15]

09.30-10.00         NAGY Joseph (UCLA) “Vermin Gone Bad in Scandinavian and Other Traditions”[16]

10.00-10.30         WITZEL Michael (Harvard) “Ymir in India, China — and Beyond”[17]


10.30-11.00         COFFEE BREAK


Friday - Panel 2

11.00-11.30         GUÐRÚN Nordal (Háskóli Íslands / Stofnun Árna Magnússonar) “Grímnismál: A Text in the Thirteenth Century”[18]

11.30-12.00         BÄCKVALL Maja (Harvard) “Myths Lost and Found in the Uppsala Edda[19]  

12.00-12.30         LYLE Emily (Edinburgh) "Baldr and Iraj: Murdered and Avenged”[20]


12.30-14.00         LUNCH BREAK


Friday - Panel 3

14.00-14.30         SUNDQVIST Olof (Gävle) ”The Temple, the Tree and the Well. A topos or Real Cosmic Symbolism at Cultic sites in Pre-Christian Northern Europe?”[21]

14.30-15.00         PATTON Kimberley (Harvard) “That Tree Set Up in Wisdom: Yggdrasil, The Tree of the Cross, and the Upside-Down Tree of the Vedic Traditions”[22] 

15.00-15.30         RÖSLI Lukas (Zürich) “Rethinking the End of the World in Old Norse Mythology”[23]


15.30-16.00         COFFEE BREAK


Friday - Panel 4

16.00-16.30         NORDVIG Matthias (Aarhus) “A Hot Topic: Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology”[24]

16.30-17.00         ABRAM Chris (Notre Dame) “Ragnarök and Climate Change: Reading Völuspá at the End of the World”[25]

17.00-17.30         PRICE Neil (Aberdeen) “Archaeologies of the Ragnarök: A Sixth-Century Climate Disaster and its Geomythological Legacy”[26]


17.30-18.30         RECEPTION






[1] Schjødt: “As anybody the least familiar with the pre-Christian religion of the North (PCRN) will know the source situation in this field is far from ideal: some sources are very hard to interpret and to date, and others are demonstrably written in the Christian Middle Ages by Christian authors. This situation creates a clear need for having a model of the ‘type’ of religion to which PCRN belongs. The problem which will be discussed in the lecture, is thus how we create such a model. There is no doubt that some sort of comparative enterprise is needed, but how would it be meaningful to apply ‘the comparative method’ in relation to PCRN?”

[2] Hughes: “In his introductory remarks opening the exhibition, “Icelandic Sagas, Eddas, and Art,” held at the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1982, the late Charles Ryskamp, then Director of that august institution,  noted that while his library had a formidable and extensive collection of manuscripts, it did not have a single Icelandic one. The Houghton Library possesses 57.

                  The first manuscript was given to the College Library in 1886, and for many decades it was catalogued as a book (Scan.4200.3) before final receiving the designation “MS Icel. 55.” It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) who began the College’s investment in Scandinavian Studies with the purchase of 650 volumes from Denmark and Sweden in the year before he became Smith Professor of Modern Languages, a position he held from 1836-1854, but it was not until 1893 when Archibald Cary Coolidge (1866-1928) began to teach a half course on Scandinavian History every other year, that Scandinavian Studies can be said to have taken root at Harvard. Coolidge was joined by William Henry Schofield (1870-1920), Instructor in English 1897-1902 (later Professor of Comparative Literature, 1906-1920), who taught the first course in Old Norse in 1900. It was Coolidge who was responsible for engineering in 1904 the purchase of some 10,000 volumes from the library of Konrad von Maurer (1823-1902), Professor of Law at the University of Munich 1847-1888. In the “Zweiter (Nordischer) Teil” of the printed catalog to Maurer’s library, items 2353-2356 are manuscripts. The first three are copies of Jónsbók, two in vellum, now catalogued as MS Icel. 42, 43, and 46. The fourth item, number 2356, lists: “Manuskripte. 39 altnordische Codices (Papierhandschriften) juristischen, theologischen, poetischen und folkloristischen Inhalts.” These were manuscripts that Maurer collected during his journey to Iceland in the summer of 1858. But as the ancients said, “caveat emptor.” This description is only partly correct. To begin with, these manuscripts are not Old Norse, they are early Modern Icelandic, some written as late as the first decade of the nineteenth century, and while they may be characterized as “legal, theological, poetical and folkloristic,” they are in fact much more varied.  This paper looks at some of the highlights of the Maurer collection and those manuscripts that were added later, focusing on those that are likely to be of interest to Old Norse scholars, but not neglecting their variety and their importance to modern as well as medieval scholars.”

[3] DuBois: “Old Norse materials regarding the sun present conflcting stories about its identity and nature.  My paper looks at folk song materials from among Sami, Finns, and Latvians to investigate to what extent a shared mythic narrative of a female sun (or sun's daughter) may have existed as a common element in Nordic/Baltic mythologies and whether that figure enters into marriage with other astral figures (e.g., the moon, the stars).  Methodologically, I hope to investigate the extent to which folk song materials--still central in the reconstruction of Finnish and Baltic mythologies but largely rejected in the field of Old Norse studies--can serve as useful tools in reconstructing ancient myths in the region.”

[4] Lindow: “The extent to which Finnish/Karelian and Nordic mythologies conform is striking. Both were transmitted in the form of short oral poems in relatively simple verse form (setting aside for a moment skaldic poetry) with varying actors and subject matter. Both characters and plots can be compared: Óðinn and Väinämöinen; Þórr and Ilmarinen; verbal duels; the acquisition of precious objects; seeking women from an out-group; the permanence of death. This paper sets forth and evaluates such points of comparison and sets forth the significant differences. Although I am skeptical about the methodology that posits borrowing to explain similarities, I do find that the comparison rewards exploration in a number of ways.”

[5] Cole: “In this paper, I will chiefly be examining the potential impact of Christian iconography regarding the Jews in Snorra Edda. Following work by Heather O'Donoghue ["What has Baldr to do with Lamech?", Medium Ævum 72(2003)] I will also consider resonances from some of the originally Jewish exegetical and magical tradition which had been incorporated into Christian learning by the time Snorri Sturluson was writing.”

[6] Hermann: “This paper is about memory in the medieval period and about how memory had an impact on the literature written in that period. The paper will deal with memory in the mythology created by the texts as well as with memory as a medium for transmission of pagan myths.”

[7] Heslop: “It is characteristic of the transmission of Old Norse myth and heroic legend that the narratives do not appear ‘as such’, but rather within a frame, for example the ekphrastic framing of the so-called shield poems, the omnipresent framing by various kinds of borders in the visual sources, and the explanatory frames for the poems provided in the Poetic Edda. In this talk, I will compare how narratives are framed in sources from a variety of different points in time and space – possible examples include Beowulf, the Rök runestone, Gotlandic picture stones, Swedish runestones, and the Prose and Poetic Edda – and ask questions such as: what are the normative and formative functions of such narratives? How are processes of transmission staged in visual and verbal narrative? What is the ontological status of the texts and objects that transmit mythic and heroic narrative? What happens when they are received by hearers, readers and viewers?” 

[8] Glauser: “This paper deals with some of the well-known Old Norse narratives, which are generally interpreted as manifestations of the myth of the intoxicating drink. In contrast to the majority of previous scholarship (Renate Doht, Peter Buchholz, Svava Jakobsdóttir, Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, Heimir Pálsson and others), my presentation will not so much focus on the often-discussed question of a precise definition of the functions of these narratives as mead of sovereignty and /or mead of poetry. The main interest will rather be on some major aspects the specific literary and visual forms in which these narratives were mediated and transmitted.”

[9] Kaplan: “If we accept, as many do, that the shadowy author of Vǫlsa þáttr made up this nasty little tale, the question remains: what did he make it out of? This paper approaches Vǫlsa þáttr as a fantasy spun not from half-forgotten heathenism but from folk traditions of the author’s own day.”

[10] Gunnell: “The aim of this lecture is to gather together recurring motifs concerning the peculiarities of the religion of those gods referred to as the Vanir (the reported death of whom might be regarded as a touch premature). A range of Old Norse accounts from different times including Ynglinga saga, Gunnars þáttr helmings, Gesta Danorum, Hrafnkels saga, Vatnsdæla saga and more will be used. Many of the aforementioned motifs (commonly concerning ritual activities) tend to be unexplained in the texts but nonetheless have recurring patterns which imply that in their oral traditions, outsiders seem to have seen the religious activities connected with the “Vanir” as having been different in nature to those known outside Sweden. The lecture will consider these differences, and whether they can be considered mere Christian propaganda or perhaps had some distant basis in a “reality” which preceded the arrival of Óðinn, Þórr and the Christian God in Sweden.”

[11] Jóhanna Katrín: “Although the evidence of the late sagas (e.g., fornaldarsögur) has been carefully mined over the years for data reflecting on older Nordic mythological traditions, few scholars have treated the Icelandic rímur, in many instances believed to be roughly comparable in age to these extant sagas, with either the same care or the same goals. My paper explores the question whether the rímur could be considered a potentially useful source of information about Norse myth.”

[12] Wellendorf: “What are the idols of the Æsir and what is their nature? In my paper I will seek to confront the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition with the idols we meet in Old Norse accounts of myth and ritual in the Northern world.”

[13] Samplonius: “In recent times, the notion that magic constituted a structural element of Old Nordic Religion has gained much popularity, leading to such interpretations as that one of the women buried at the rich Oseberg Ship funeral had been a vǫlva, and, related to it, that a number of staffs from certain 10th-century graves had been magic wands. The paper discusses whether the sources at our disposal justify any such conclusion.”

[14] Zachrisson: “The winged man from Uppåkra, an object that can be placed to the late 8th century, shows a winged man with drops of blood on his left hand/wing. It illustrates perfectly Völund as described in the 13th-c. Þiðriks saga af Bern. The context for the object - the cult house in Uppåkra - is situated in the South Scandinavian region, and marks one of its nodal points. The time-span c. 750 to 1200 and the opinions on Þiðriks saga, as well as the settings in the written texts on Völund (Zealand in Þiðriks saga and Svithiod in Völundarkviða), are the starting points for my discussion of this interesting comparison.”

[15] Puett: “This paper will discuss the comparative implications of Old Norse mythology, with a particular focus on China”

[16] Nagy: “Traditions about the serpentine element in Ragnar Loðbrók’s heroic biography have been discussed in relation to the episode about the rise and fall of Haftvad’s worm told in the Persian Shahnameh. There are, however, analogs in ancient Greek and medieval Irish literature as well, pointing, I will argue, to an underlying Indo-European mythological pattern.”

[17] Witzel: “A variant of the Old Norse myth of Ymir is found in the oldest Indian text, the Rgveda, pointing to a common Indo-European origin. Some other Indo-European speaking peoples have minor, related versions. However, the myth is also found in Old (southern) Chinese myth, and beyond. Questions of origins and local variations will be addressed.”

[18] Guðrún: “The eddic poem Grímnismál enjoyed a special place in learned writings about myth and skaldic poetry in the thirteenth century. The complete text of the poem is preserved in the two main manuscripts of the eddic poetry, the Codex Regius and the A manuscript, though not in the same sequence nor do the manuscripts carry the exact same text, and individual stanzas are furthermore cited in Snorra Edda (half of the poem), Óláfr Þórðarson‘sThird Grammatical Treatise and in Litla Skálda. One of the question underpinning the paper is why this mythological poem played such an important role in learned treatises and cosmological imagery in the thirteenth century. The answer gives an insight into the workings of the textual culture at the time.”

[19] Bäckvall: “By now, it is hardly controversial to point out that much interesting information about Edda, its contents and reception can be gleaned from the Uppsala manuscript of the work. All manuscripts are different, and some are more different than others. In this paper, I will present some instances of how the Uppsala Edda differs from the other Edda manuscripts when it comes to the mythological content matter in (primarily) Gylfaginning. To put it in another way, I will discuss how our modern ideas of Norse mythology might have been different if thisEdda manuscript were the only surviving one.”

[20] Lyle: “An unexpected parallel has emerged between the Baldr narrative and the narrative of Iraj in the PersianShahnameh, and comparison between them may help to throw light on both as expressions of an Indo-European mythic theme.  In both cases, an innocent and defenceless figure is murdered by a pair, one planning and one acting, and in both cases there is a kinship barrier to immediate revenge, and the murdered man/god is eventually avenged by a hero who was not yet born at the time of the murder.”

[21] Sundqvist: “In ecclesiastical Latin sources referring to pre-Christian Northern Europe we sometimes meet descriptions of cultic trees/groves and sacrificial wells situated close to temples. Are these descriptions built on atopos taken from mythic traditions or do they reflect a real cosmic symbolism (or a common cultural model) at pre-­Christian cultic sites of these areas? By means of other sources, such as Old Norse texts, place-names and archaeological materials, and a comparative method, I will try to answer this question.”

[22] Patton: “Focusing on the methodological challenges of the intersection between sacred histories and historicity (real trees and their exfoliation in ritual practice and the religious imagination).”

[23] Rösli: ”The different mythological concepts of ragna rǫk, (Poetic Edda) and ragnarøkr (Prose Edda) have often been interpreted as some sort of fixed ending of the eddic world, followed by a new and independently created world joining a cyclical system of cosmogonies. In this paper I would like to rethink the well-known cyclical structure of these two concepts. I will argue, based on the textual narratives, for a new view on the end of the world and its reshaped and transformed versions.”

[24] Nordvig: “There is hardly any culture on Earth that has flourished in close proximity to very active volcanoes without producing a rich mythology about them (e.g.,  Hawai'i, Mesoamerica, Rome). In Iceland, there are very few early stories of volcanism. Current scholarship attributes this to a special Icelandic way of dealing with the coarse, subarctic environment of the island (Þórr Þórðarson, “Perception of Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland” [2010]), but this contradicts everything that is known about the way humans linguistically process their physical surroundings when faced with disasters and natural processes (Barber & Barber, When They Severed Earth from Sky [2004]; Cashman & Cronin, "Welcoming a Monster to the World: Myths, Oral Tradition, and Modern Societal Response to Volcanic Disasters" [2008]). In my talk I will present some examples of where we can find such conceptualizations of volcanism in Old Norse mythology.”

[25] Abram: “This paper proposes that the Old Norse myth of Ragnarök illuminates the apocalyptic experience of catastrophic global climate change that we are currently struggling to come to terms with; and our viewpoint at the end of the world (of one world, our world, at least) can provide an important perspective for understanding the events described in Völuspá. The crisis at the heart of Ragnarök is an ecological, and ironical, one: it results from the gods’ apparent success in mastering the physical world.”

[26] Price: “There is now general agreement among geoscientists that in the year AD 536, and for varying lengths of time thereafter, several parts of the world experienced a prolonged solar darkness. This took the form of a loosely-termed ‘dust veil’ blocking the sun’s warmth from reaching the earth, traceable in numerous environmental proxies and probably resulting from a massive volcanic eruption in Central America. Numerous textual sources from the period independently describe what was clearly a natural disaster of some magnitude, with a range of catastrophic effects including crop failure, famine and civil strife. In this paper, building on work by the author and other archaeologists including especially Bo Gräslund, the socially transformative impact of the ‘dust veil’ on the late Iron Age cultures of Scandinavia is explored. In particular, attention is devoted to its possible geomythological legacy in the Old Norse stories of the Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the Ragnarök, and in related mythic traditions.”