Gods and myths of northern Europe

by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson

Book, 1964



Call number



Publisher Unknown


The origins and the stories behind Scandinavian deities are given in detail.

User reviews

LibraryThing member eyja
This is a very interesting read into what we know about mythology in Northern Europe in both pre- and viking age. The author does tend to do some hypothetical guesses that are presented as evidence, so do be careful if you use this as a source. This book did make me think, and it helps to get a
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better understanding of mythology/religion in general and the Northern Germanic mythology in particular.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
A man's heroic deeds will win renown, and his fine qualities will be passed on to his descendents. Such is the noblest form of immortality, and the great gods themselves achieved no more. [217]

Readable and clear, Davidson's slim narrative is not shallow summary but a muscular outline of the
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achievement and character of Norse mythology. The emphasis is analytic: Davidson identifies themes across myths and deities, summarises archaeological evidence and source materials, traces broad influences in modern belief and religion. Myths are not retold so much as characterised, and the people who believed and lived these stories are considered at the level of individual tribes and communities. Davidson avoids glossing over discrepancies, pointing out contradictory aspects of stories and especially of deities, reinforcing the major gaps in the historical record. For example, in the case of almost any deity except Odin, Thor, and Freyr, there is virtually no archaeological evidence of worship or cults, making clear how oversimplified are the popular characterizations of Heimdall, Loki, Balder, and others.

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. [...] The dangers of this view of the world lay in a tendency towards lack of compassion for the weak, an over-emphasis on material success, and arrogant self-confidence: indeed the heroic literature contains frank warning against such errors. [218-19]

Undoubtedly some conclusions are dated but it should be fairly easy to determine which, based on where new evidence or sources became available since 1964. I suspect that Davidson will be wrong, when she is wrong, because pertinent source materials simply aren't available: she'll be wrong for what's requisite yet missing, and not wrong for making an untenable reading, or for neglecting some pertinent theme. All considered, a fine entry point for my renewed interest in the Norse tradition.

Man must not take himself or even his gods too seriously, and this is an attitude which goes deeper than the wit of Snorri, it is part of the spirit of the myths themselves. The exuberant exaggerations of the Irish sagas are not for the northern gods; Freyja, Thor, Loki have the robust common sense which the Vikings themselves admired hugely. [...] This sense of proportion ... helps to preserve in the myths a keen realization of the strength of fate. [217]


To be confirmed: apart from Valhalla, open to a select minority, there is no afterlife for Vikings, nor immortality for their gods. There is, however, a conviction that life follows a cycle, that the Nine Worlds will be destroyed (including Valhalla) only to make way for something new, once again with Yggdrasil at the center.

Extensive notes, glossary, and bibliography suggest further reading and avenues of exploration.
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