Speakers and their abstracts at the Folklore and Old Norse Mythology Conference in Helsinki.
PhD Joonas Ahola, University of Helsinki

Myth and Character-Building in the Icelandic Family Sagas

Many orders of narrative elements familiar from Old Norse myths have been recognized in the Icelandic family sagas. The significance of these allusions have been interpreted as indications of myths functioning as structural and narrative patterns (narrative superstructures or exemplars), as mere literary devices in the craft of saga-writing, or as something between these extremes. However, the authors or writers of the saga literature seem to have been familiar with myths and to have expected their audience to be so, too.                   

The boundaries between different narrative genres are often flexible, especially in a society where information is circulated predominantly in oral form as in medieval Iceland. Therefore, it should be no surprise that narrative features typical for one genre are also met in another. However, it is arguable that, in these cases, a narrative element has not only been transferred from a narrative of one genre into that of another but that simultaneously, also something of the storyworld behind this narrative is transferred into the other genre.

This paper will discuss the ways that the transference of the storyworld from one narrative genre into another has taken place in medieval Iceland, with special emphasis on the character-building of outlaws in the family sagas through references to Scandinavian mythology. It will be discussed how and to what extent the recognition of this merger of storyworlds may have affected the audiences’ reception of the saga narrative and to what extent this effect ought to be accounted for in modern interpretations of the saga texts. 

Lecturer Maths Bertell, Mid-Sweden University

Exclusivity in Old Norse Ritual and the Christianization of Ritual Space

A main difference between an indigenous religion and a universal religion, is the exclusivity of the latter, the claim of offering the one and only truth. In the 6th century, a new way of worship rose with the rise of the Odin cult in halls. The emphasis on the Odin character during the harsh reality of the Vendel period, seems to have created a religious tension between the aristocracy and the fertility oriented majority, expressed mythologically and ritually and later inherited by Christ from Othin. Part of this tension is the Othin cults drift towards Christianity. The ritual side of Old Norse religion were one of the aspects that changed in the pre-Viking Age period, resulting in the concept of Valhall. Along with the religion of the Viking ‘diaspora’, developed during the Viking age, Old Norse religion changed to fit the new circumstances when leaving mainland Scandinavia and moving closer to Christian ideas.’

Docent Matthias Egeler, Ludwig-Maxmillians University, Munich, and Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin; DAAD-P.R.I.M.E.-Fellow

Medieval Irish Folklore and the Construction of Place in Eyrbyggja saga

The paper will discuss the account of the life and afterlife of Þórólfr Twist-Foot in Eyrbyggja saga. In Eyrbyggja saga, Þórólfr Twist-Foot appears as a prominent character who features in the narrative in a variety of shapes (as an unjust and violent Viking-turned-farmer; as a revenant haunting the land out of two different burial sites; and finally as a destructive bull); in doing so, he almost provides a frame for the saga’s overall narrative, as he has his first appearance already in the early chapters of the saga and his last appearance almost at the end of the narrative. His complex, multi-stage life-story is closely related to a noticeably large number of very specific places on the shores of the fjord Álftafjörður and even culminates in an act of place-naming, thus fundamentally contributing to the narrative ‘making’ of the local landscape. Thus, it is tied to the soil of Iceland almost as closely as any narrative can possibly be. At the same time, however, it finds a remarkably close parallel in the medieval Irish place-lore (dindshenchas) connected with Áth Lúain, today’s Athlone in Co. Westmeath. The paper will outline that these parallels are so close that they strongly suggest that Þórólfr’s supernatural ‘place-making’ on the fjord Álftafjörður represents a highly conscious act of intercultural translation of medieval Irish mythical-heroic place-lore, which appears to have been transferred from one medieval Atlantic island to another. This transferral appears to have been part of a broader pattern of transfers of medieval Irish narrative lore to Settlement Period Iceland that most likely took place on a folkloric rather than a literary level.

Docent Frog, University of Helsinki

‘My God Can Beat up Your God!’Asserting Specialists’ Power and Authority through Mythic Discourse

‘Mythic discourse’ has become a term to refer to the use, communication and manipulation of mythology by people in society, whether in conventional practices or in new and unique ways. Rather than treating mythology as something that exists aloof from people in society, I approach mythology through mythic discourse.  This paper explores assertions in the Old Norse corpus of the relative power and authority of types of ritual specialists, with categories of cases.  The first group are encounters between representatives of Christianity and non-Christian ritual specialists.  These are approached as reflecting medieval legend traditions concerned with conversion and help to introduce the concept of mythic discourse and how it operates.  The second group is of cases in which Thor is placed in relation to Christ as competing agents linked to different specialists. The example of Thor challenging Jesus to a duel in Njáls saga will be foregrounded and considered in relation to analogical encounters of gods emblematic of competing religious frameworks.  The third group will be of encounters of Odin with völvas in mythological contexts, which will be considered in relation to the constructions of the authority of different types of non-Christian ritual specialists in Finno-Karelian kalevalaic mythology.  Approaching these types of cases as forms of mythic discourse produces a more nuanced perspective on the dynamics of folklore behind individual sources.

Lecturer Leszek Gardela, University of Rzeszow

Women and Axes in the North: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Viking Archaeology, Old Norse Literature and Folklore

This paper is an attempt to unravel the meanings of an unusual Viking Age mortuary custom which involved burying women with axes. Several graves of this kind, dating from the ninth to the tenth centuries, have been found in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Each of them is unique, because in Scandinavia military equipment is typically buried with men and weapons rarely accompany women in funerary contexts. Axes are not the only peculiarity in graves of this type, however. Also the internal constructions of these female graves differ from what is usually the norm in a given locality; wooden chambers and the use of boats as containers for the bodies are clear signals that the funerals required a considerable amount of time and effort. Moreover, in addition to being provided with axes, the dead are also accompanied by rare and/or exotic types of jewellery and in some instances by ritual accoutrements such as staffs and amulets – all this implies that these women were somewhat out of the ordinary. 

By adopting an interdisciplinary and theoretically-driven approach to archaeological sources, this paper will explore the fluid meanings of axes in both mundane and ritual contexts, as well as their particular connection with women in the North. How can we ‘read’ the meanings of axes in female graves? Should we consider them in a traditional light as indicators of identity, status and profession or should we rather regard them as objects which convey more complex messages about the dead and those who buried them? 

In line with the principles of retrospective approaches, this paper will also test to what extent it is possible and justified to collectively use archaeology, literature and folklore in attempts to better understand the Viking mind.  

Professor Gísli Sigurðsson, Árni Magnússon Institute, Reykjavík

Mythology of the Prose Edda Interacting with the Sky

It is well established in memory studies that buildings and landscape can serve as a storehouse for memory. By thinking through these "storehouses" people can retrieve what they want/need from the different "locations". When travelling in the physical world, the landscape serves as a cue for certain stories, explaining place names or narrating events that are said to have taken place there. This line of thinking has been applied to the secular part of Old Norse literature. In my paper I will look at the sky above, which can serve as a similar aid to the memory as structures on the ground. This applies in particular to texts with cosmic dimensions such as the mythological material in the Gylfaginning of Snorri Sturluson's Edda. Seen from a phenomenological perspective the sky is a gigantic dome above us, explained as Ýmir's head in the Norse mythology, where a mighty tree can be observed, or narrated, in and above the sky, and where also many named mythological locations and characters are literally to be found. I shall discuss direct references to locations in the sky in Gylfaginning and put them in the context of memory technique and ethnic astronomy as it is expressed with mythological vocabulary in cultures around the globe. By explaining Snorri's mythology in light of findings in ethnic astronomy we are able to understand why mythological stories with roots in the Viking past were still told in the 13th century, just over 200 years after the official acceptance of Christianity.

Professor Terry Gunnell, University Iceland

George Marwick’s Account of ‘The Muckle Tree or Igasill’: Folklore or Literature?

In 2014, the Orkney folklorist and storyteller Tom Muir along with the historian James Irvine published a book entitled George Marwick: Yesnaby's Master Storyteller which included the published and unpublished works of George Marwick (1836-1912) who grew up in the isolated township of Yesnaby on the west coast of the Mainland of Orkney. Marwick was an amateur folklorist (similar to Icelanders like Jón lærði Guðmundsson in earlier times) who spent his life collecting all kinds of local folklore including legends. He has not been renowned for his accuracy. Nonetheless, one of the most intriguing pieces in this collection is Marwick’s account ‘The Muckle Tree or Igasill’, which he credits to local women. In addition to describing the tree, this long account talks of figures like ‘Mrs Norn’, ‘Oddie’ (Óðinn) and his horse ‘Sliper’, the ‘keeries’ who sing in the tree (cf. valkyrjur) and sometimes ride cows, ‘Ballie’ (cf. Baldr), who went away to a hot place called Huli (cf. Hel) or Sartur (cf. Surtr) and had to be rescued and brought back to life. Other intriguing figures include Har Mowat (cf. Hermóðr), a big dog and some giants. In this lecture, I will consider this piece and its background, and whether it is likely to have roots in living tradition passed on over time or in literature. If it does have roots in the oral tradition, it would add weight to the idea that several versions of the Baldr myth existed in the North Atlantic (something also suggested by the versions in Saxo and in Irish mythology). 

Lecturer Eldar Heide, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

Magical Fishing in Historia Norwegie – Incomprehensible without Late Folklore

In Historia Norwegie, written in Latin in the late 12th century, there is a passage about how the Sami in some supernatural way catch a large amount of fish. The editors have not been able to make sense of the passage, and they have argued that something is missing from the text. Popular traditions recorded in Iceland and Northern Norway in the 19th and 20th centuries may provide a key. If we read the passage in light of these late traditions, it makes good sense, and the textual problems more or less disappear. The passage then describes how the Sami with their magic are able to steal fish from the Norwegians from a distance: out of the sea they draw, using a crooked stick, fish that come from the Norwegians’ storehouses. This may have been understood as seiðr, because the most frequent form of seiðr in the Old Norse sources concerns attracting (from a distance) resources or persons, and also because the crooked stick connects to ideas that overlap with seiðr, about supernatural, long-distance travel known from Old Norse sources and later traditions. 

PhD Kirsi Kanerva, University of Turku

Brynhildr, the suicidal valkyrie: views of suicide in medieval Iceland

In Völsunga saga, Brynhildr commits suicide after Sigurðr’s death and is burned on his funeral pyre. The episode can be seen as a parallel of Nanna’s death in Snorra Edda: at Baldr’s funeral she dies of grief and is burned together with Baldr on his funeral pyre. Another interesting parallel can be found in Laxdæla saga: similar to Brynhildr, Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir is responsible for the death of her beloved one, Kjartan. However, unlike Brynhildr, she does not commit suicide but lives until old age.

Brynhildr’s suicide appears to be a northern innovation since in the southern version of the legend her fate is left suspended. (Kuhn 1971; Anderson 1980.) Therefore, as an anomaly, Brynhildr’s death offers interesting material for the study of suicide in medieval Iceland. In this paper, I will consider medieval Icelandic conceptions of suicide by employing three levels of comparison: Nanna’s death in mythological time, Brynhildr’s suicide by sword in mytho-heroic time and Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir’s remarkable life in historical time.

In Iceland, Christian conceptions of suicide had been adopted in the Old Church Law, which was presumably originally compiled by the bishop of Skálholt, Þorlákr Rúnólfsson (1086–1133). According to the law, suicides were not allowed burial in a consecrated soil, unless they express in some way that they repented of their deed. Later in the Jónsbók law from 1281, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland and was handled under the heading of níðingsverk. Confiscation of property was declared as its punishment. Accordingly, when the sources mentioned above were compiled according to scholarly opinion, suicide was already condemned in the ecclesiastical context, but it had not yet become a legal felony.

As Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir was the ancestor of noteworthy thirteenth-century Icelandic families, it is probable that there was a tendency to present her life in a favorable light, but it was also well-known that she had lived until old age. However, the mytho-heroic sources may have been a useful literary device which could be used to discuss issues that could not be discussed otherwise – as some moral dilemma and suicidal tendencies may have been in medieval Iceland – from a distanced perspective. (Tulinius 2002; Clunies Ross 2009.) Accordingly, a relevant concept for my study of the Eddic and mytho-heroic material is “mythic discourse”: people could use and manipulate (in Frog’s [2015] words) “images, motifs and stories that had a mythic quality in order to mediate conceptual models, values, understandings and so forth.” In the paper, I will consider what the sources may tell us about medieval Icelandic attitudes towards and views of suicide.

Anderson, Theodore M. 1980. The Legend of Brynhild. Ithaca and London.

Clunies Ross, Margaret. 2009. “Fornaldarsögur as Fantastic Ethnographies.” In Fornaldarsagaerne: Myter og virkelighed. Studier i de oldislandske fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Agneta Ney, Ármann Jakobsson & Annette Lassen, 317–330. Køpenhavn.

Frog. 2015. “Mythology in Cultural Practice: A Methodological Framework for Historical Analysis.” RMN Newsletter 10 (Summer 2015), 33–57.

Kunh, Hans. 1971. “Brünhilds und Kriemhilds Tod.“ In Hans Kuhn: Kleine Schriften II, edited by Dietrich Hofmann, 80–87. Berlin: de Gruyter. [Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 82 (1948–1950): 191–199.]

Torfi H. Tulinius. 2002. The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literary Fiction in Thirteenth-Century Iceland. Transl. by Randi C. Eldevik. Odense.

PhD student Karolina Kouvola, University of Helsinki

In Search of the tietäjä with a Little Help from Old Norse Material

This paper handles the Finno-Karelian tietäjä tradition and its’ research history, focusing on religious studies and folklore scholarship in Finland during the late 20th century to the present. The main question which this paper answers is how and what kind of Old Norse material was used to construct an idea of the tietäjä within Finnish scholarship during this period? A tietäjä is portrayed in research literature as a ritual specialist, who performs certain rituals and tasks in order to heal and protect his community. One of the main characteristics of the tietäjä is that he has otherwise secret knowledge which is made visible in the charms which he uses – of course no one should hear these charms unless tietäjä wants to give away his power to someone else. In her studies on tietäjä tradition, Anna-Leena Siikala used Old Norse material to build bridges between Scandinavian and Finno-Karelian traditions. This paper examines the use of Old Norse material in building the tietäjä theory based on Siikala and other Finnish scholarship on the subject. 

Mythologist Henning Kure, independent scholar, Copenhagen

Size Matters – Dwarfs in Old Norse Myths and Folklore

Dwarfs are not only a term for a certain group of supernatural beings in Old Norse myths, Icelandic sagas, and Germanic folklore, but may also be used in Scandinavian languages for several, seemingly unrelated folklore artifacts: upright timber studs in house constructions, fibula clasps, and – in compounds – illness and echoes.

My presentation will be an attempt to elucidate the nature and the role of the mythical dwarf by these folkloristic uses of the term, and in turn discover why such diverse artifacts are called dwarfs. Is it really just a matter of size?

PhD student Tommy Kuusela, Institute for Language and Folklore, Uppsala

A Brief History of Giants

In my presentation, I give an overview of how giants have been interpreted from the beginnings of research on Old Norse mythology in the 1600s until modern times. Older research generally regards giants as older gods, forces of nature, demons, or forces of chaos etc. During the 1990s, a change occurred: giants, especially giantesses, were interpreted in a more positive light, and it was emphasised that the gods were dependant on the giants due to their (potential) resources and knowledge of cosmological value.

Professor John Lindow, University of California, Berkeley

Old Norse Mythology and Legend Tradition

Since von Sydow’s pathbreaking study of the masterbuilder legend (1907, 1908), it has been clear that at least some narratives from Old Norse mythology have analogues in (contemporary or) later folklore, specifically in this case in ‘migratory legends’. This paper departs from a case study of a possible (partial) analogue: ML 6045 Drinking Cup Stolen from the Fairies / Óðinn’s acquisition of the mead of poetry. The legend is attested from the twelfth century in England and from all over northern Europe in later centuries. Parallels include acquisition of a precious object associated with intoxication, brought from a mound/mountain, with a life-threatening pursuit. The object is brought to the world of humans, where it is maintained in a sacred or power center. My point with this case study is to address more generally the issue of the mythology and legend tradition. I will argue that merely identifying parallel structures is not helpful in and of itself, since differences in the traditions as a whole affect how one must understand the narratives.

Professor John McKinnell, University of Durham

Traces of Pre-Christian Religion in British Ballads and Popular Poetry

It is hardly surprising that most British ballads of the late medieval and early modern periods reflect the Catholic or Protestant Christianity that dominated the culture of their times. However, a small number of them also include remnants of mythological patterns, religious beliefs or ritual which conflict with this orthodoxy, and some of these probably represent popular adaptations of pre-Christian Germanic religion. This paper will consider the criteria by which these survivals may be recognised, and will look at some examples of the transformation of gods or other supernatural beings into devils or evil human beings, of non-Christian beliefs about the return of the dead, and at one ballad which was traditionally performed in association with a non-Christian ritual and includes several parallels with features of Old Norse mythology. Because we can only recognise these pre-Christian survivals by their resemblance to details derived from other sources, they cannot tell us anything new about the actual religion of pre-Christian times; but they do provide some remarkable evidence of the survival of fragments of heathenism over many centuries in popular culture.

Professor Else Mundal, University of Bergen

Old Norse Mythology, Heroic Legends, Religion and Folklore

In my paper, I will discuss the borders between and the overlapping of the categories mentioned in the title. The relationship between these categories, which are defined by modern scholarship, may differ from one culture to another and it may also vary considerably how well the sources, written or oral, from different cultures fit into these categories. Just to mention one example: In Old Norse culture mythology and heroic legends are two relatively clearly defined categories, even though there are some overlaps, while in other cultures, as for instance in Finnish and Irish, the two categories show a strong tendency to melt into one. The fact that there is overlap between the categories makes it reasonable to think that they can shed light on each other. A much-discussed problem, which I will address, is whether, or to what degree, folklore from more recent time can be used to shed light on Old Norse myths and religion. The major problem is the long distance in time between the Old Norse period and the time when folklore was written down, but there are also other factors that could influence and change the traditions, such as great cultural changes, for example a change of religion, change of genre, and influences from neighbouring cultures.

Professor Stephen Mitchell, Harvard University

Myths, Historiolas, and Magic

The find in 2010 of an early 11th-century rune-inscribed lead spindle whorl by a detectorist in Lincolnshire, England (LIN-D92A22), has—as interpreted by John Hines (2016)—suggested an important new parallel to the formulation known from the famous Ribe skull fragment inscription (DR EM85; 151B). My comments will explore this possibility against the broad background of the international charm phenomenon known as the historiola (on which, see, for example, Frankfurter 1995), relevant Nordic charms, both pagan and Christian, such as the Kvinneby copper amulet (ÖL 16), the Narsaq rune staff (GR 76M), and the Ribe healing stick (DR EM85; 493 M) (for which, see Elemvik et al. 1993- ; cf. McKinnell et al. 2004), and surviving mythological texts where magic plays a critical role, such as the eddic poem Skírnismál.

Elmevik, Lennart, Lena Peterson, and Henrik Williams. 1993-. Samnordisk Runtextdatabas.  Available at: http://www.runforum.nordiska.uu.se/samnord/.  Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska språk, Uppsala universitet.

Frankfurter, David 1995. "Narrating Power: The Theory and Practice of the Magical Historiola in Ritual Spells." In Ancient Magic and Ritual Power. Ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 129. Leiden: E. J. Brill. Pp. 455-76.

Hines, John. 2016. "A glimpse of the heathen Norse in Lincolnshire." In Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Art, Material Culture, Language and Literature of the Early Medieval World. Ed. Eric Cambridge and Jane Hawkes. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

LIN-D92A22 - EARLY MEDIEVAL spindle whorl = https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/409249

McKinnell, John, Rudolf Simek, and Klaus Düwel, eds. 2004. Runes, Magic and Religion: A Sourcebook. Studia medievalia Septentrionalia, 10.  Vienna: Fassbaender.

Lecturer Andreas Nordberg, University of Stockholm

The Configurations of Old Norse Religion and its Relevance for the Study of late Scandinavian Folklore

The aims of the present presentation are twofold:

  1. In recent decades, questions about continuity, change and regional variations have been under discussion in research into Old Norse religion. In reference to this debate, I will present a perspective on these problems that has hitherto been overlooked. People’s religious identity is usually not static and constant. Most people alternate between certain fundamental, contextually dependent configurations of beliefs, as they, spatially and/or mentally, shift between different surroundings and socio-cultural frameworks. To most people, these alterations often occur spontaneously, although the different religious configurations might be partially logically inconsistent. In the present study, I suggest that Old Norse religion basically consisted of four such general configurations: 1, the configuration of the farm and the farmer, which focused on good harvest, a wealth of livestock, good health, life and death, and overall prosperity for the people, the farm and the land; 2, the configuration of the hunter and fisherman, where the key elements concerned ideas about hunting luck and the relationship between the hunter/fisherman and the “ruler” of the prey; 3, the configuration of the warrior, which I suggest mainly concerned a warrior aristocratic stratum of the population; and 4, the configuration of myth, which only partially coincided with the configurations of the farmer and the warrior, and did not coincide at all with the configuration of the hunter and fisherman.
  2. If a configuration of religion is related to a transforming social and cultural-ecological context, two things may happen. If the configuration is adaptable to the new circumstances, it may continue to be relevant, although possibly in a new way. If it is not adaptable, the configuration’s traditions might transform into some other cultural phenomena, or gradually cease to exist. In the latter part of my presentation, I will discuss the relevance of these perspectives for the question of possible continuation (of some sort) between aspects of Old Norse religion and late Scandinavian folklore.
PhD student Simon Nygaard, Aarhus University

Skalds as Ritual Specialists? Looking for Religious Ritual Frameworks in the Oral Performance of Haraldskvæði, Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál

In the corpus of Old Norse skaldic poetry, three poems stand out. Not because of the content they convey, but because of the metres employed by the skalds in the praise poems in question: Haraldskvæði, Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál. The specific metres – málaháttr and ljóðaháttr – are generally thought of as being eddic rather than skaldic. In addition, the ljóðaháttr metre (lit. metre of incantation) often signifies the treatment of magical or even religious content, which begs the question, why was this metre chosen over the more commonly used skaldic metre dróttkvætt? This seemingly suggests that these three early praise poems form a group that bridges the realms of mythology and religion on the one hand and courtly politics on the other. In this paper, I will explore whether these skaldic poems could possibly represent pre-Christian, oral religious rituals and subsequently which functions the performance of such rituals might have had to both performer and audience.

The performance context of these skaldic poems has recently been examined by Terry Gunnell (for Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál) and Anna Millward (for Haraldskvæði). Gunnell notes that “One is drawn to consider […] whether they [Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál] too had some ritualistic purpose related to the funeral activities of the two kings.” (Gunnell forthcoming) – a notion that I will explore further. Millward, however, remarks that “it seems unlikely that the performer’s main concern was to instigate a profound religious nor semi-sacred transformational experience for his audience […] it seems reasonable to argue that the performance [of Haraldskvæði] was thus about generating make-belief and play for the sake of artistic entertainment and an enjoyable audience experience.” (Millward 2014, 179-80). Putting this interpretation to the test, I will re-examine Haraldskvæði – along with Eiríksmál and Hákonarmál – in the context of religious ritual performance.

In order to pry open the medieval written text and examine the possible pre-Christian, oral ritual framework behind it, I will utilise and present an interdisciplinary theoretical approach to the sources based on Memory Studies, Performance Studies and Ritual Studies. This is done in the hope of bettering our understanding of the poems, their function, and their context. 

Professor Judy Quinn, University of Cambridge

Fifth-Column Mother: Týr’s Negotiation of Kinship (and jötunheimar) According to Hymiskviða

In this paper I’ll explore the oral traditions behind some of the mythological configurations expressed in the eddic poem Hymiskviða, in which the god Týr assists Þórr in his mission to seize an ale-brewing kettle from within the territory of the giants.  Of particular interest is Týr’s profitable exploitation of his parents, the giant Hymir and the beautiful and sympathetic (apparently non-giant) woman who is Týr’s mother.  Aspects of the plot of the poem suggest an orally-transmitted tradition at odds, to some degree, with the main patterns of Old Norse mythology as they have been identified through the lens of structuralism.  Hymiskviða is also unusual among eddic mythological poems in presenting the narrator’s voice challenging anyone better able to talk about the gods (goðmálugr), indicating self-consciousness about competing versions of the mythology and variant stagings of mythological encounters in eddic verse. This too sheds light on the dynamism of the oral traditions behind the poetry preserved in the Codex Regius collection of poetry.


Professor Catharina Raudvere, University of Copenhagen

Transforming, Transgressing, and Terrorizing: Shape-Shifters in Swedish Medieval Ballads

A possible continuity from the pre-Christian religion of the Nordic countries to popular belief of later centuries has for long been a contested area as much as how to identify the changes in a long-term perspective. The focus of such discussions has mainly been on motifs and narrative patterns, less on religious content. Undeniably, there are lacunas in the material when trying to argue in any of these directions. One of the few genres that connect the medieval period with the early modern is the ballad tradition.

The first volume of the text critical edition of the Swedish ballad tradition is devoted to texts dealing with the supernatural in a broad understanding of the term. The supernatural ballads constitute a rich, even if complicated from a source critical perspective, corpus of texts that has far too rarely caught the attention of the academic study of religion. Here we encounter supernatural beings like the elves and the nix, intentional shape-shifters who transform themselves in order to perform evil or good to their fellow human beings, returning dead and various kinds of spirits. But more than narratives that can be recognized from texts from other periods, the ballads are also characterized by the moral messages they are transmitting by means of visualizing emotions of fear, appropriate behaviour and trust in the local community. In other words: the excitement of testing the social borders and the dangers of transgressing them.

This paper will take its outset in an analysis of the ballad ‘The Werewolf’, but will neither argue in favour of an unbroken genealogy over centuries nor in favour of retrospective methods. Rather, it will point to conceptualizations of destiny, honour and good/evil as expressed in the ballads as valuable means to approach a world-view and ethical stands that existed in relation – not parallel – to Catholicism as well as Lutheranism and with links to Old Norse literature. 

Professor Jens Peter Schjødt, Aarhus University

Pre-Cristian Religion of the North as folklore: The example of Freyr

The paper will discuss the very notion of religion in pre-Christian religion in its relation to folklore. The starting point will be, as is stated in the invitation to the symposium ‘ ………….any traditions behind medieval written texts can be viewed as forms of “folklore”……..’. I believe this recognition is of utmost importance, and must necessarily influence the way we reconstruct the pagan religion of the North. I also believe that it can be related to the notion of ‘semantic centers’, which I have dealt with earlier.

In this paper, then, I will apply these ideas concerning methodology to the god Freyr. Various scholars during recent years have been dealing with Freyr, the distribution of his cult, and his function within the religion and society of pre-Christian Scandinavia; in my view some of these ideas do not take into consideration the above mentioned recognition that ‘religion’ to a certain extent should be studied as ‘folklore’. In this way it will be attempted to analyse, not only the geographical diversity of the cult, but also answering the question of ‘why’ some gods were preferred in certain geographical areas and not in others.

Professor Rudolf Simek, University of Bonn

Basic Instincts?

In ON. Literature, troll-women crop up in a variety of shapes and functions, and the terminology is rich, with a large number of personal names of (usually quite telling) names in top.

Their varied functions have been studied in the past, from those as seeresses (Motz 1980, 1988, 1993, Quinn 1995, 1998, Schulz 2004) to helpers (McKinnell 2009)), foster-mothers (McKinnell 2009, Lozzi Gallo 2006) to caring lovers as well as dangerous antagonists. But why, in quite a number of saga instances, do they turn against their own kin – their giant fathers, their troll sisters – and side with the hero? And what about their offspring with human heroes?

Following up previous studies by Hermann Pálsson (1997) and Else Mundal (1996, 2000, 2009), the present paper tries to explore certain aspects of human interactions with troll-women and find some underlying basic social functions in the stories about troll-women.

PhD Kendra Willson, University of Turku

Approaching seiðr from Later Traditions - Possibilities and Pitfalls

PhD Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, Swedish National Heritage Board

Gotland Picture Stones and Narration

In an investigation of Viking period Gotland picture stones (8th-10th c.), it was found that many of the motifs had been made by using stencils. The same stencils had been repeated, mirrored and in some cases used on different stones. Sometimes attributes had been exchanged. The main aim was to study workshops and craft traditions, but the use of stencils have further implications.

The use of stencils can be related to a much wider discussion, not only chronology, design and manufacturing, but also to concepts in Oral-Formulaic Theory. It has been suggested to me that the use of stencils in picture stones may be seen as a visual medium’s parallel to Oral-Formulaic Theory's use of prefabricated narrative units, i.e. themes that are reused in telling different stories. The manner in which stencils have been used on Gotland picture stones have parallels with formulaic language, of the kind which also leaves room for the poet’s own creativity. This perspective may shed light upon some peculiar features of the picture stones.