The Politics of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Apparently Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology sparked a mini-controversy last fall:

In less than three days, Gaiman’s Facebook post attracted more than 20,000 shares, 50,000 likes, and more than 3,200 comments. Reactions were polarized: On one side, throngs of fans were eager for the author’s recreation of these tales; on the other, a smaller, but no less vocal, group of self-proclaimed pagans seemed to dread his inevitable misunderstanding of their religious beliefs. At the time, none of these commenters had read Gaiman’s book.

Lisa L. Hannett notes that “the stories recognized today as pagan Norse myths were written down — and possibly reinvented — in more extended prose form by outsiders and Christians”:

Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote about Germanic peoples and their rituals centuries before they migrated to the British Isles. Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat traveling the Volga trade route in the 10th century, described the funeral practices (ship burial and slave sacrifice among them) of the Rus, a group of people believed to be Swedish Vikings angling to control eastern trade routes. Saxo Grammaticus, a Dane writing in Latin in the late 11th century, brought the Norse gods down to earth, downplaying their divine qualities and also situating their kingdom in Byzantium instead of in heavenly Asgard. Adam of Bremen, a German monk writing around the same time, shared stories about pagan worship at the temple in Uppsala, Sweden, one of early medieval Scandinavia’s most sacred sites. (Told second-hand based on an informant’s account, Adam’s frequently referenced work includes vague details about the blot ceremony held there every ninth year, at which nine specimens of every creature — including humans — were said to have been sacrificed to the gods.)

The vast majority of what is now known about Norse mythology, however, survives thanks to Snorri Sturluson, an ambitious and powerful chieftain, lawyer, politician, poet, and saga writer who lived in Iceland from 1179 to 1241. These dates are significant: They tell us that Snorri was recording these narratives roughly 200 years after the Christian conversion in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. They also, significantly, tell us that “original” and definitively pagan narratives about the Norse pantheon do not actually exist.

This claim needs a bit of qualifying. Scholars mostly agree that the myths Gaiman has retold — the same ones found in Snorri’s Prose Edda — were inspired by earlier pagan narratives. In fact, several stanzas of pre-Christian poems are preserved in Snorri’s work. Other snippets of pagan poetry also appear in 13th and 14th century Icelandic sagas, truly novelistic accounts like Grettis saga and Egils saga (the latter also possibly written by Snorri). Yet by the time Snorri was composing his versions of the Norse myths, his worldview was solidly a Christian one.

I was considering getting the audiobook.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    If the pagans were serious about Norse religion, they would become Hindus. Hinduism is the closest surviving descendant of the ancient Indo-European cults.

  2. Duane Watson says:

    I’ve been listening to the audiobook myself as I love hearing Gaiman read his own stories, and I’m enjoying it immensely. I don’t really get the controversy, but Gaiman acknowledges in the introduction that he knows the Poetic and Prose Eddas don’t contain all the stories told about the Norse pantheon — especially the female members of it. I don’t know how any pagans feel about the finished product, but I hope they enjoy it, too.

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