The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe

The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe

The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe

The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe

Synopsis

Fragments of ancient belief mingle with folklore and Christian dogma until the original tenets are lost in the myths and psychologies of the intervening years. Hilda Ellis Davidson illustrates how pagan beliefs have been represented and misinterpreted by the Christian tradition, and throws light on the nature of pre-Christian beliefs and how they have been preserved. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe stresses both the possibilities and the difficulties of investigating the lost religious beliefs of Northern Europe.

Excerpt


Stout men were we, but that passed by,
Above our bones men tread.

(attributed to Fland mac Lonain: trans. Robin Flower)

How should we approach a religion of the past when it has left no creed for us to study, no sacred books or descriptions of rituals, no life of its founder and, indeed, little trace of the religious leaders and thinking minds who contributed to its development? Sometimes it is only possible to put together a few fragments of recorded beliefs and practices, to study carved stones or to find traces of mythology in legends and folk traditions and the tentative interpretation of names of nearly forgotten deities. This is roughly the position with the beliefs of some of the peoples of northern Europe, such as the Finno-Ugrians (including the Saami or Lapps and the Estonians), the Balts (including the Lithuanians and the Letts) and the Slavs. Traces of their mythology survive in folklore and folk art, and archaic features of surviving Baltic languages make the names of super-natural beings of much interest to scholars. In Finland the material collected by Lönnrot in the early nineteenth century, found in the lays making up the Kalevala, indicates a fine heritage of mythological tradition, but after so long a space of time there is little definite evidence from which to reconstruct ritual and belief (Honko 1987). In the case of the Celtic and Germanic peoples, however, the position is different, in studying their religion we are faced with many problems and there are vast gaps in our knowledge, but we have evidence from early art and archaeology in many different regions, and in addition an extensive early literature from medieval Ireland and Iceland. Although this was recorded by Christian chroniclers and story-tellers, in most cases in monasteries, it has, nevertheless, preserved a good deal of information about pre-Christian traditions and myths. Antiquarian enthusiasm for the past and the lively spirit of many of the old tales have ensured their continued existence in manuscripts and popular oral tradition long after Christianity was firmly established. It should therefore be possible to build up at least a partial picture of the old religion of north-western Europe, provided we realize the possibilities and limitations of the sources available.

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