Two Approaches to Understanding
Old Norse Cosmology
There are at least two methods we can use to understand the world-view of the ancient Germanic people. The first is to accept as accurate the vision of the world-tree Yggdrasil described by the 13th century Christian historian Snorri Sturluson and attempt to make the older statements found in the Poetic Edda regarding Old Norse cosmology conform to his view. The second is to examine the cosmological statements found in the Poetic Edda independently and draw our own conclusions based on the evidence found there.
The first method has been the dominant approach for the last 200 years and is deeply engrained in mainstream scholarly works today, yet the scholars themselves have noted inconsistencies and anomalies they have struggled to explain. Of this approach, Rudolf Simek says:
"Only the Nordic sources give us a complete view of the world, and even if Snorri does decorate this picture in his Edda with numerous details of non-Germanic origin, confirmation of the most important evidence in the Edda is nonetheless found in other sources. ...Not only Snorri but also authors of later saga literature have tried time and again to reconcile this native Germanic cosmology with the mythological elements heard about on journeys, as well as with ideas conveyed by scholarly Christian representation. This led to numerous varying interpretations of mythological geography."
—Dictionary of Northern Mythology, s.v. 'cosmology'
The pitfalls of such an approach are immediately obvious. Starting with the premise that Snorri's view is the correct one, one is put in the awkward position of determining what in the other sources is authentic and what is not. Anything that agrees with Snorri’s account is seen as confirmation of it, and everything that doesn't is then labeled as a variant belief, and explained away as the Norsemen themselves attempting to reconcile their native view of the cosmos (understood as Snorri's account of it) with foreign concepts they have heard on their travels. This approach ignores the obvious fact that the Norsemen were excellent navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching Greenland, Iceland and North America, and who traveled far into Europe and Asia—clearly, they had a working knowledge of astronomy, which to be effective must be founded on the idea of a stable, regular cosmos. Could a people who successfully navigated a large portion of the globe really have had such a disjointed and incongruous worldview as the one proposed by modern scholars based on Snorri’s Edda?
To get an idea of how the ancient heathens understood their world and their place in it, it is necessary to examine their own statements in this regard. To do this, we must examine the oldest available sources. Regarding the reliability of these sources, John McKinnell writes:
“Any wise commentator on Norse mythology ought to begin by acknowledging frankly that we know rather little about it. Many modern descriptions rely heavily on the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (SnE.), and especially on the fluent and persuasive account of the gods in Gylfaginning (Gylf.), its first major section". But Snorri was writing in the 1220's, when
Almáttigr guð skapaði himin ok jörð ok alla þá hluti er þeim fylgja, ok síðarst menn tvá er ættir eru frá komnar, Adam ok Evu, ok fjölgaðisk þeira kynslöð ok dreifðisk um heim allan.
‘Almighty God created heaven and earth and all things in them, and lastly two humans from whom generations are descended, Adam and Eve, and their stock multiplied and spread over all the world .’
“When the heathen view is subsequently introduced, it is as a deception practised by the Æsir (who are said to be descended from King Priam of
“Of course, Snorri was obliged to put forward the heathen mythology only as error, but he was a member of a universally Christian society, and there is no reason to think that he had any desire to present it as truth. He was writing primarily for the benefit of aspiring poets, who could only understand the work of their predecessors if they knew the myths alluded to in earlier poetry. He thus had no reason deliberately to distort the material he inherited, but he received it as a Christian from Christian informants, and his understanding of it is inevitably limited by that fact.
When we look for genuinely heathen voices, there are three or perhaps four types of source:
1. Mythological Eddic poems
2. Skaldic verse
3. Picture stones
4. Contemporary Christian views of Norse heathenism
[John McKinnell, Both One and Many, Essays on Change and Variety in Late Norse Heathenism, 1994, pp. 13-20]
Therefore, to understand how the ancient Norsemen conceived of the cosmos, our best bet is to examine what the Poetic Edda has to say of it. Unlike the traditional approach, this method assumes that the poets who composed the Eddic poems had a coherent mythological understanding of the world they lived in, which was broadly accepted by their intended audience. Such a worldview is necessary for navigation, and would have allowed them to travel the world and return home safely. Since the poems of the Edda are generally agreed to be genuinely heathen in nature, and a source that Snorri himself used, let's set aside Snorri's understanding of Old Norse cosmology for a moment and rely solely on what the poems of the Poetic Edda have to say on this important subject. What of the Old Norse worldview can we glean from the words of the heathen poets themselves? Do they form a coherent picture of the Old Norse cosmos or not?
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