At a conference held by the University of Copenhagen in 1979, Niels Lund decried the absence of good evidence concerning Danish medieval society and implied that we were wrong to accredit too much to the writings of Saxo Grammaticus in his twelfth century Gesta Danorum and Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth century Eddas and Sagas. Even so, forty years later, many people still cling to their romantic content despite the fact that they were written in much later centuries by, notably, men (only) who were, by then, on the one hand immersed in Christian culture, and anxiously promoting a national identity on the other. Since 1979, physical and cultural anthropological studies, and archaeological discoveries have revealed much.
Viking art of the Borre and Jellinge style, 800-1000 AD, portray intertwining and knotted serpents, beasts and plants. The beasts often possess hands that grip or bite each other. Here I speculate: those of us who have sailed will appreciate how easy it is for a rope to become entangled. Here I do not speculate: might it not have been seen as divinely metaphorical that threads, hairs and fibres which are themselves weak, can be plaited together to form strong bonds? And might it not also have been perceived as magical that certain knots could not be pulled apart, whereas others – where the spell has not been woven – fall easily apart?
In Stephen Pollington’s Elder Gods: the Otherworld of Early England, 2011, he refers to the proto–Germanic gods possessing similarities to the Greek and Roman panoply, which probably emerged from early Indo-European religions. He particularly raises the idea that three gods must act in unison to change the course of fate for the common good. Here again appears the rope analogy, for an unravelling rope must have three strands. The ‘chief’ gods of the fifth century Angles and Saxons – being those of the ninth century Danes – were Tiw and Woden and Thor and Frigga. But the world and sky visible to mortals, together with that of the gods, was created by a changing Allfather concept whose mantle could pass from one of the three ‘male’ gods Tiw, or Woden (Odin) or Thor. Tiw seems to have been in favour during the late Iron Age (according to Tacitus). But, by 800, the Danes seem to have been following Odin, whilst some Norwegians (Finn-gails) seemed to favour Thor. This is attested in a lengthy and erudite paper written in 1972 by Gabriel Turville-Petre for the Viking Society for Northern Research of University College London. It’s called Nine Norse Studies and is downloadable free from Google, but it’s not a light read..
Oh yes, and poor old Frigga had to be contented with being Odin’s wife and having the power of foresight – her position in the panoply of gods, speaking volumes of either those men who wrote the histories, or of the actual place of women in Scandinavian society. The topic deserves a separate post.
It turns out that:
Tiw represents: justice – Latin equivalent Mars
Thor represents: strength and heroism – Latin equivalent Hercules
Odin represents: cleverness, cunning, intuition – Latin equivalent Mercury
I suggest that the adulation of Odin might be particularly significant in our understanding of the Danish mind of 866.
If a Danish leader were to be cunning and devious and clever with spoken words, thereby emulating the most respected characteristics of Odin, and respected by his people, would that mean that he would be honest in his dealings? I think not. There is something attractive about a devious rogue. He is the mainstay of much fiction – from Tom Jones to Tom Ripley – but he needs to be a male. A ‘scheming’ woman is not so attractive even twelve hundred years beyond the cult of Odin.
And do we not still grudgingly respect the Machiavelli’s of this world, and military leaders who outwit the enemy, no matter how harmful and ruthless their actions may be.
So we, in modern Western society, can still conceive how the ninth century Danes might have been minded to follow a theological path that seemed to them to be natural. But there were enough of them to understand that this path was leading them to self-destruction and they clearly they chose in this man Guthrum a champion with remarkable talents. Mind you, by the time he made the Peace with Alfred in 878, he and his older men would have been living among and with Christian Angle women, who were familiar with the concepts of honesty and written proofs of evidence, for twelve years.