Navigation auf


Deutsches Seminar The Performance of Old Norse Myth and Ritual

Lecturers at the Conference

Anders Andrén (Professor of Archeology, University of Stockholm)

Karen Bek-Pedersen (Lecturer in Religious Studies, University of Southern Denmark)

Stefan Brink (Professor of Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen)

Terry Gunnell (Professor in Folkloristics, University of Iceland, Reykjavík)

Pernille Hermann (Associate Professor of Scandinavian Studies, Aarhus University)

Henning Kure (Independent scholar and comic-strip artist, Copenhagen)

John Lindow (Professor of Scandinavian, University of California, Berkeley)

John McKinnell (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Literature, Durham University)

Stephen Mitchell (Professor of Scandinavian and Folklore, Harvard University, Cambridge MA)

Else Mundal (Professor of Old Norse Philology, University of Bergen)

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati (Professor in the Study of Religion, University of Zürich)

Neil Price (Professor of Archeology, University of Aberdeen)

Lukas Rösli (PhD Student in Scandinavian Studies, University of Zürich)

Rudolf Simek (Professor of German Studies, University of Bonn)

Jens Peter Schjødt (Professor in the Study of Religion, Aarhus University)

Papers and Abstracts

Anders Andrén (University of Stockholm): Post festum. The archaeology of performance in Old Norse traditions

Studying performance from an archaeological perspective is like visiting a theatre in the night, after the play, when the actors and the audience are gone. Basically, we can study the spatial setting of performance and the props used in the performance. However, this indirect knowledge may give a better and broader understanding of images and texts related to performance. Since the hall is a well-known stage for Old Norse performances I will above all present other spatial settings, outside houses. I will give examples of large and small places, including aspects of visibility, delimitations and movement. I will also discuss different props used in performances, such as humans, animals and objects.


Karen Bek-Pedersen (University of Southern Denmark): Honour and Passion in Eddic Heroic Poetry

This paper will consider some of the great heroes and heroines of Old Norse tradition as though they were real flesh-and-blood humans. The narratives told about these extraordinary people contain all the trappings of stylized heroic idealism and grand poetic imagery, which sometimes makes it hard to see any potentially real person hiding behind the stereotypes. As scholars, we often take much of the poetic tradition for granted or simply see through it - for obvious reasons, since our work provides us with a fairly high degree of familiarity with the culture that created and maintained these narratives. There is nonetheless also something to be gained from approaching the narratives purely as poetry. The paper will consider some of the poetic imagery from the point of view of someone less familiar with heroic tradition, but interested in the poetry.


Stefan Brink (University of Aberdeen): The sacred grove

In my research I have in recent years been occupied trying to identify and study places in the early Scandinavian landscape, where the pagan Scandinavians met for communal activities, such as cultic, ritual, legal and other social activities. I have called these places Landscape Interfaces, sites in the landscape where people obviously - or probably - did perceive a closer connection to them up there (gods and goddesses) and those down there (ancestors). One such landscape feature is the cultic grove, now and then mentioned in the literature, but best evidenced in the place-name material. I will discuss these cultic groves,mainly out from toponymic evidence, and couple this with new insight on the sacred grove we have got from recent arcaheological excavations. Finally I will try to see how this fit in a mythology of Early Scandinavia.


Terry Gunnell (University of Iceland, Reykjavík): The Uses of Performance Studies for the Study of Old Norse Religion

This paper intends to give a brief introduction to the field and approaches of Performance Studies, and the value this field has for the study of Old Nordic Religion, not only with regard to mythology (and the necessity of considering mythological texts as oral works presented in living context) but also archaeological finds (which can be viewed as essentially the remains of a performance of some kind). As a case study, a brief consideration will be made of Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál from this viewpoint, as works that took place in space and time, involving both sound and movement and interaction with space and audience.


Pernille Hermann (Aarhus University): Myth and Performance. The Orality/Literacy Debate Re-framed

In this paper I will take the opportunity to revisit the orality/literacy debate, which is paramount for our understanding of Old Norse myths. My considerations will be related to tendencies in scholarship that have guided the debate in new directions, in indicating that it is not sufficient to frame Old Norse myths (and other Old Norse genres with roots in oral tradition) in an orality/literacy dichotomy, which focuses solely on the verbal dimension of the myths. The paper will consider how myths are mediated and received, and it will point to some of the challenges it implies when the myths are reconstructed and recontextualised.


Henning Kure (Copenhagen): Performance As the Telling of the Myth

We can only reach the possible abstract content of Old Norse myths (ideology, religious beliefs, worldview, etc.) through its preserved concrete forms - literature, pictures, artifacts, shapes that may hint at ritual and performance. In order to remind us of the practical effect of this precondition on our perception of the myths and their characters, we shall have a look at the way performance may inform and to a certain degree also shape and facilitate change of abstract content in the story it tells, exemplified by pictures and a few clips from the animated film Valhalla (Denmark, 1986), which is based on the myth of the challenges met by Thor and his companions at the hall of Utgarda-Loki, preserved only in Snorri Sturluson's Gylfaginning (Iceland, ca. 1220).


John Lindow (University of California, Berkeley): Ritual and Hierarchy in the Mythology

I begin with the performance of Húsdrápa and the carvings they describe. Juxtaposing the funeral of Baldr with the killing of the Miðgarðsormr brings out the fact that the serpent got no mortuary ritual at all. This, I argue, invokes a hierarchy between Æsir and Jǫtnar that in turn promoted order in the human community, an order that was particularly welcome at a wedding ritual or at a ritual celebrating the occupation of a new building.
In the second part of the paper I consider how a middle ground, not funeral but "processing” of bodies, as with Ymir, Kvasir, and Mímir, promotes a hierarchy within the mythological structure. The sphere of Óðinn is revealed as death and ritual, and we can contrast it with the absence of Þórr from this realm. He can kill, but he cannot process.


John McKinnell (Durham University): Personae of the performer in Hávamál

This paper considers Hávamál as a script for performance, either of the whole text as it appears in the Codex Regius, or of one or more of the four major sections or 'movements' that make up most of it, mainly by looking at the shifting personae implied by the uses of the first-person pronoun.
In the first of two gnomic sections that convey anthologies of traditional wisdom (Hávamál A, roughly stt. 1-79) the 'I' figure presents himself primarily as a good or a bad guest, and secondarily as either a traveller or a visitor to a friend; the only point at which he identifies himself with Óðinn (stt. 13-14) is part of a series of examples of the bad guest. Some of the features attributed to the guest are incompatible with each other, and this suggests that the performer is less like an actor inhabiting a role than an impressionist who can briefly adopt a succession of roles in order to illustrate a theme. In the second gnomic section (Hávamál C or Loddfáfnismál, stt. 111-136 and probably 162,4-9), the speaker is again anonymous, though he may be associated with the seat of a þulr or wise man, beside the well of Fate, and has apparently learned his wisdom from what he heard inside Óðinn's hall (st. 111) - he does not seem to be Óðinn himself.
The first of two narrative sections (Hávamál B, or 'the Poem of Sexual Intrigue', probably stt. 84 and 91-110) introduces a sophisticated cynic who becomes the protagonist of what was probably a traditional tale about an unnamed unsuccessful lover. However, half-way through this episode he is suddenly and unexpectedly identified with Óðinn, and it is followed by a self-congratulatory first-person account of Óðinn's seduction of Gunnlǫð, at the end of which the voice of the performer reasserts itself, as he reflects on the fact that Óðinn's word cannot be trusted (st. 110). The final major section of the text (Hávamál D or Ljóðatal, stt. 138-163 - although stt. 142-145 are probably not original) concentrates more steadily on Óðinn in his role as self-sacrificial magician, with only one aside (in st. 143) in which the voice of the performer adds that he has carved some runes himself. The last stanza (st. 164) shows the performer finally stepping out from behind his various masks to address his listening audience directly.
I conclude that the performer adopts a succession of different personae, and that even when he is called 'Óðinn', the characters implied by the name range from the drunkard of stt. 13-14 to the cynical but educated seducer of Hávamál B and the supernatural magician of Hávamál D, who differ widely from each other; all of them are ultimately voices adopted by the manipulating performer.


Stephen Mitchell (Harvard University, Cambridge MA): "A twelfth I know…": On Hávamál 157 and the Performance of Charm Magic

The matter of charms as illocutionary acts has a long history in Western research, especially with regard to the Anglo-Saxon corpus. My paper draws on this scientific literature, as well as comparanda from further afield, with respect to one of the darker spells enumerated in Ljóðatal, that concerned with eliciting the speech of a virgilnár (cp. gálgnár):

Þat kann ec iþ tólpta, ef ec sé á tré uppi
váfa virgilná:
svá ec ríst oc í rúnom fác,
at sá gengr gumi
oc mælir við mic.


Else Mundal (University of Bergen): The most important activity of the Old Norse gods: collecting and transmitting knowledge

When reading introductions to, and handbooks about, Old Norse mythology it is very easy to get the impression that the main activity of the Old Norse gods was to fight the giants. In the most full and detailed source, Snorri's Edda, the fight between the gods and the giants is in fact a very dominant subject. In Snorri's main source, the Eddic mythological poems, there is another activity that is more in focus: the gods' untiring attempts to collect knowledge, and the same poems make it clear that the gods shared their knowledge with humans. According to Old Norse mythology the giants had more knowledge than the gods, but they had quite another attitude to knowledge. The giants do not seem to be interested in sharing their knowledge. The gods, on the other hand, realize the importance of passing the old knowledge and memory of the past down to humans. In Old Norse mythology the gods in fact act as a sort of catalyst of knowledge and memory from the past that makes cultural growth among the humans possible.


Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati (University of Zürich): Myth as Illusion, Narrative, or Transformation? A Challenging Category in Comparative Perspective

From the ancient Greek term mythos to the present common usage of the term denoting an untruthful illusion; from structuralist theories to ideology criticism: a diverse variety of associations, narratives, and theories revolve around the term 'myth'. Despite (or perhaps precisely because of) this complexity, 'myth' still remains a crucial, critical term in the study of religious symbol-systems.

This contribution investigates a select sample of theoretical approaches to myth within the study of religion, attentive to its varied definition and use in history-of-religions comparison. In particular, the paper focuses on the interpretative possibilities of defining 'myth' for use in exploring the interaction between texts and images. In inter-medial comparison, the category of 'myth' can be very useful in outlining the link between the immediacy of visual representations and the narrative process. Furthermore, it offers a creative approach to engage with the varied ways in which a specific, single source, is embedded within multifaceted, fluctuating processes of reception. Finally, the paper investigates the interface between theoretical assumptions concerning 'myth' and their methodological implications for a comparative analysis of religious traditions.


Neil Price (University of Aberdeen): Nine Paces from Hel: Time and Motion in Old Norse Ritual Performance

The last decade or so has seen an increasing interest in the notion of performance and drama as integral elements in Viking-Age ritual. Among textual scholars, notably Terry Gunnell, we have seen great advances made in our understanding of how what we now know as Norse mythology was originally communicated and perceived. Archaeologists, including myself, have worked on the parallel realm of mortuary behaviour and the complex practice of funerals. However, it is one thing to note the probable existence of ritual performance in these contexts, but a quite different matter to uncover what it was that actually happened. How were the postulated mythological dramas staged? Where did these plays find their audience? What really occurred at the gravesides of the Vikings? Using examples from the Old Norse prose corpus and recent archaeological finds, the paper will discuss the recovery of duration, spatial arena and specific action in performative ritual of the period.


Lukas Rösli (University of Zürich): Creation as Performance: The Creation of Space in Gylfaginning

In this paper I will discuss, how the creation of space in Gylfaginning can be read as different sorts of performances as well as performative acts. Not only the very cosmological creation of the world generates spatiality, but also the action of certain figures within the text or even the narrative in itself can be interpreted as creative acts of spatial performances. To stress the ambiguous meaning of the term Performance I will try to show different stages of performances or performative acts. This will involve Performance in terms of stage play, re-creation, performative utterances or the actual creation myth.


Rudolf Simek (University of Bonn): Social aspects of performance of Eddic Poetry

While previous discussions of performance have centered on questions of genre and partly on the complex question of religious change, it seems that social implications of literary performance have largely been ignored. This paper presents various possibilities of European medieval performative art before presenting examples from ON literature for the social role of religiously loaded poetry. 


Jens Peter Schjødt (Aarhus University): Performing Myths. A discussion of Vilhelm Grønbech's contribution to the reconstruction of pre-Christian rituals in the North

The Original Danish version of Vilhelm Grønbech's The Culture of the Teutons (Danish Vor Folkeæt I Oldtiden) was published 1909-12. Grønbech's reconstruction of pre-Christian rituals, particularly in the part called 'Essay on Ritual Drama' was heavily debated, not least because of the methods he used for this reconstruction which were - to put it mildly - not part of the source critical tendency that dominated most of the scholarship within the field during the 20. century. Grønbech's general method in dealing with the Old Norse sources was, however, discussed with much approval by such a prolific scholar as Preben Meulengracht Sørensen during the 1990'ties, although it was not the ritual studies that were in focus in his discussion, but rather the treatment of notions such as honour, shame and others. In this paper I shall deal with Grønbech's work on rituals and attempt to evaluate his view and working methods on the subject: Should Grönbech be rehabilitated or do we have to admit that his methods do not stand up to modern standards.