Books on Northern European and Norse Religions

As a philosopher and historian, I have a great interest in understanding and reconstructing the past. This includes religion. During my days as a Classical studies undergraduate, I read a lot about Greek and Hellenistic religions, but now I have shifted into the Norse and Northern European traditions. Below I will review some of my favorite books in these areas (I should also mention that as a philosopher (Ph.D.) I read a lot in philosophy of religion both as a student and later as a philosophy instructor, but so much philosophy of religion focuses on the monotheistic religions. However, if you are examining pagan traditions you need to get a stronger grasp of polytheism, animism, and panpsychism. I plan to write a separate blog post on those areas).

Daniel McCoy’s book, The Viking Spirit, is the easiest book to read of those I’ve shown, and is written for the layperson. It is an enjoyable read that provides an overview of Norse religion and mythology. It is a great way to introduce yourself to the ideas, or as a light-hearted review if you are already familiar with the main concepts.

H.R. Ellis Davidson was a great scholar. I really love her writings, you can tell because I have several of her books! Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe was the first book of hers that I read. When it comes to her other books, I am currently part way through all of them. I work through each somewhat slowly so that I can digest what she is saying, highlighting things along the way (I treat these books as if I were a graduate student again). Then, days, or even a few weeks later I return to the book, re-read what I had previously highlighted before continuing on for another chapter. I find her books are worth taking my time to explore. One book not shown here but one I intend to get is the first book she wrote: The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. This is another classic and I look forward to examining it.

The Thomas DuBois book: Nordic Religions in the Nordic Age, is a stand-out and respected academic volume if you want a rigorous source for the Nordic religions. Like the books of H.R. Ellis Davidson, I am working my way through this book at a slower place to increase my understanding. As the blurb on the back cover accurately says “DuBois examines Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Mediterranean traditions to locate significant Nordic parallels in conceptions of supernatural beings, cults of the dead, beliefs in ghosts, and magical practices. These beliefs were actively held alongside Christianity for many years, and were finally incorporated into the vernacular religious practice.” The book does an exemplary job of showing the interplay and exchange of ideas between these different cultures.

John Lindow’s: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, is a thorough encyclopedic reference for all things related to Norse heroes, rituals, and beliefs, including insightful prefatory material examining concepts of mythic time, cyclical time, narrative, and language, to help the reader understand the encyclopedic entries that follow for the main body of the book. As an encyclopedia, this is not a book you read cover to cover (although I would recommend that you read the first chapters on conceptions of time), but dip in when you need a clear and detailed clarification on a concept.

I also find it informative to study modern practices in Norse Paganism. The views presented will vary depending on whether the author leans towards reconstructionism, or eclecticism (in how they present and interpret beliefs and practices). One also has to be attentive when exploring this literature, since Norse Paganism has a problem with a vocal minority of white supremacists trying to appropriate the symbols and beliefs of Northern European faiths for their own muddled ideology. The Asatru/Norse Paganism books I have shown above are not written by racists.

Patricia Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru has very informative chapters on conceptions of time, land spirits, charms, magic, ethics, and rituals.

Ryan Smith’s The Way of Fire and Ice: Living Traditions of Norse Paganism has chapters on how to develop practices and core ideas with a focus on building community (a healthy and supportive community).

Both these books I have only dipped into. I am currently focused on academic examinations of the ancient and medieval traditions on which to build a foundation – I want to understand the beliefs as much as I can from the perspective of the original practitioners (which is admittedly difficult since we have only fragmentary archeological and historical evidence to rely upon). Then, with a semi solid historical foundation I will more confidently move into modern practices to see how they have taken past views and re-interpreted them to meet the current challenges facing our societies. And as I alluded to earlier, I am also reading through academic texts on polytheism, animism, and panpsychism, for these are the philosophical and religious ideas which underlie past and current pagan practices, and as a philosopher I have the need to analyze and critique the foundational concepts and themes being drawn upon to see how they hold up to examination. The problem with being a philosopher is the constant need to obsessively question, examine, and interrogate concepts! It can be very tiresome to systematically dismantle and reform ideas, but it is oh so fulfilling when you discover a new way in which to view, or interpret, the world!

Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 64

1. Attacked by a unique variant of cockatrice, Gnoosh, our gnome rogue/illusionist is nearly turned to stone – twice – through bite attacks!
2. Activating a trap, the Army of the Light is chased down flights of stairs with a giant boulder rolling after them!

Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue/Illusionist of Baravar
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric/Wizard of Sehanine
Astrid, Human Skald of Hel
Ria, Human Pacer of Loki
Remi, Gnome Harlequin (Rogue/Illusionist) of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin of St. Ingrid
Roulf, Half-Orc Drachentoten (i.e. Dragonslayer) of Crom
Edward, Human Bard of St. Cecilia
Aturash, Half-Orc Berserker of Odin
Orwin, Half-Elf (human lineage) Fighter/Drachentoten of St. Agathos

Inaros, Human Cleric of Osiris

Game Diary:
The group left off last time on a cliffhanger at the doorway of a room with two cockatrice bounding toward them.

Cockatrice (art from D&D 5E Monster Manual)

We began the session with an initiative roll. The players held their attacks and the cockatrice, although 40 feet away, launched themselves into the air and used their wings to soar right into melee combat. Some might think of cockatrice as creatures that petrify people with a gaze attack (like so many other monsters of that type, like medusa and basilisks), and although I frequently use the Labyrinth Lord monsters (which is what Barrowmaze was designed for), I chose to use the Castles & Crusades version instead. In C&C the cockatrice transmits petrification through a bite attack. I found that a lot more interesting, and it allowed me to potentially catch some players off guard who might otherwise rely on prior game knowledge (one of the challenges I have as a GM is that although it is sometimes nice to have a player rely on prior knowledge to move an encounter or adventure forward, other times I want to show them something new they haven’t seen before).

Two characters were bitten by the two cockatrice. One passed their save, but Gnoosh did not. I told him that it felt like cold concrete was being injected into his veins and his skin began to turn gray in color and his body began to stiffen (I was not going to petrify him in one round, like many other bite attacks that inject something, I felt it should take some time to spread through his body). Since the cockatrice bite attack was described in the C&C Monsters & Treasure as: “A wound from the beast’s bite becomes instantly infected…” a player asked if a they could cast remove disease to cure him. I thought that sounded great, but I had them make a spellcaster check with the Challenge Level equaling the cockatrice HD to over ride the power of the bite. They succeeded. I began to describe how Gnoosh began to re-acquire his dark tan/brownish gnome complexion again. But then the next round came and it bit Gnoosh again AND he failed his save again! I described how just as he was getting his roguish flexibility back he felt the rush of the cold, petrifying, saliva enter his system again and he began to return to a grayish stone color. Most players were able to keep the magical beasts at bay with their polearms as well as cut them up with them, and a cleric stepped up and succeeded in removing the petrifying disease of the cockatrice a second time on Gnoosh.

A large room lay before them with a tantalizing chamber in the back, but they decided they didn’t want to take any more risks, shut the door, and headed in the opposite direction! I had never seen the group do this before, they have traditionally never left a room unexplored. Since they were in this area to find the missing body parts of Dhekeon, the undead fallen paladin seeking redemption (and if brought together, his body parts will re-attach), they decided to get on with that mission. His left arm pointed to where his next appendage was. They got to a door and Gnoosh went to unlock it but rolled a 1! When that happened I described how his lock picks broke. I also explained that it appears his fingers still had some stiffening residue left over from the cockatrice bites. So Remi stepped up and as it happened, effortlessly unlocked the door!

They eventually got to a stone door that neither of the rogues could open. They knew somewhere behind it Dhekeon’s body parts were located, so they took out their sledges and broke it down. They then saw a series of stairs that slowly went up in a loose spiral pattern into an ever tightening center point (see map picture).

The stone trap (map from Barrowmaze Complete).

They got to the top and on the door there was an inscription: “Knock and Pull to Enter the Crypt of Mahle Royc.” They discussed what this could mean, eventually deciding to knock once and pull the pull ring. Apparently that was not the correct decision and a massive stone boulder fell from above. Dexterity saves were made, those that failed were hit for damage and the boulder roll over them (crushing some of their potions), those that passed were now being chased by the boulder as it descended the stairs after them! They had to make several more saves as they ran from the pursuing boulder, eventually making it to the bottom. There was a lot of healing that needed to get done when that was over. They then made their way back towards the top of the stairs and entered the crypt. There stood Dhekeon’s legs attached to his hip. Dhekeon’s lower body walked towards them. They already had his left and right arms, so all that remained was his torso and head and he would be complete. The crypt of this once mighty warrior – Mahle Royce – held his body in a full chain suit in incredible condition (and magical!). Roulf took that for himself.

The group was worn out and out of spells. They wanted to head back to Ironguard Motte. As they made their way out of the Crypt of Mahle Royce there were ghouls waiting for them (it seems that those that hid away Dhekeon’s body parts in the crypts knew the Army of the Light would go after it and set up undead to attack them). The ghouls were destroyed – they were much less challenging than the cockatrice and the crushing boulder! But it further depleted the groups resources. They left through a new exit they discovered and made their way back to town.

In the past they would take a few weeks off to rest, but this time they decided to heal up with curative spells and head back the following day to seek out the final body parts of Dhekeon. The players seem to be changing up the way they do things. This is understandable, since in an email I sent them prior to this session, I pointed out that they are mostly past the “easy” parts of the Barrowmaze and that things are going to get a lot more difficult going forward. I am guessing they have decided to be more cautious as a result, perhaps in part because three of the 10 characters in this session were level 1 and one was level 2 (40% of the group were newcomers). We did have four characters that were level 5-6, and having 10 PC’s in a party plus an NPC increases their chance for survival, but at this stage in the Barrowmaze 1st level characters have a much higher likelihood of perishing (although these new 1st level characters are all lawful good and the group was sorely lacking lawful good characters before, so having these lawful good characters is going to help them in the long run versus the undead and the forces of chaos, plus, with the higher amount of monster XP and treasure – I use the Gold Piece = XP rule – the low level characters will level up quite swiftly…if they survive). I look forward to seeing how this group takes on their next challenge!