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!

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders

I love great literature and storytelling. During my Classical Studies B.A. and Humanities minor, I enjoyed my journeys through Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, etc. In recent years my interests have shifted into the medieval time period, and from the Mediterranean region to northern Europe. I signed up for a MOOC on The Medieval Icelandic Sagas from the University of Iceland (which I described in a previous post), and that really got me excited and put me on a journey that looks to keep me busy for a good long time!

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders from Leifur Eiriksson Publishing.

Since the end of last year I have chosen to get The Complete Saga of Icelanders in one finely crafted collection with rigorous academic translations and explanations. This collection has 40 full sagas and 49 shorter tales. There is a lot of reading here! Although this cost 300 dollars, it is actually cheaper than buying them all in paperback from Penguin Books (which has taken most of the stories from the complete collection available from Leifur Eiriksson Publishing and turned them into paperbacks, albeit with a larger amount of editorial and historical background material with glossaries for each individual saga, which you expect from Penguin). Of course, I still have quite a few Penguin editions since they are more portable and I can read them while out and about, but I wanted a sturdy and well-bound collection to read while at home in my personal library. I have found both the hardcover Leifur Eiriksson collection and the Penguin editions are valuable and useful.

The slipcase collection comes with a useful guide booklet for the collection.
The interior of each book has charts and maps to assist the reader in acquiring a fuller picture of the sagas and the surrounding history and culture.
Individual Icelandic Sagas and related literature.

When it comes to the Saga of Icelanders, I have so far read Gisli Sursson’s Saga, The Saga of the People of Eyri, Njal’s Saga, and The Saga of Grettir the Strong, and I will be moving on to more of them. However, I have also planned more reading in the Poetic Edda, the Heimskringla, and some of the Viking Romances – I want to cover all the different types of Norse literature!

Folklore & RPGs: Vaesen

Do you like to make use of folklore in your RPGs? Are you tired of the same D&D tropes that have been used over and over again? I do. I love using folklore in my Castles & Crusades campaigns. Folklore and mythology are forming an ever-growing core foundation of my world. Initially when I switched from D&D 5E over to C&C I fell back upon older versions of AD&D monsters, undead, and spirits. But I’ve been gaming since 1983 and even switching to different editions of D&D didn’t really help, since I had seen and experienced it all before. Going back to original D&D sources wasn’t enough, so I began to visit the classical and medieval sources and start fresh. You could say that I wanted my old-school game to be really old-school! I wanted to feel that wonder and uncertainty again and to give my players – whether those new to RPGs, or those who have played for over 40 years – to experience monsters, undead, and nature spirits from a fresh perspective.

The Folklore & RPGs heading will be a new series I will be visiting where I will introduce some sourcebook – whether academic, or artistic – which I have found inspiring for bringing something fresh and new to my C&C games and may be of interest to you as well in your games, or just for enjoyment.

First up, Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore (I purchased this book from Grimfrost). This book is beautifully illustrated by Johan Egerkrans. Color and black and white illustrations accompany folklore drawn from Scandinavian sources. Most entries cover one or two pages, with a few encompassing four. Each entry is overflowing with flavor to enhance any RPG game you want to run. It will give you plenty of new creatures to bring into your game, and even give you dynamic ways to re-envision old ones (my players may think they know what a will-o-the-wisp is and does, but they will be learning there are many varieties out there!). Let me examine two nature spirits as examples, the Källrå (the “Nymph of the Springs”) and the Näcken.

Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore, Collected and Illustrated by Johan Egerkrans

First, let us look at the Källrå, the “Nymph of the Springs” or “Spring Guardian.” It is said that a nymph guards her own spring and in return for those that make an offering the Källrå will give the water healing powers. Normally this nymph is invisible, but sometimes she takes the form of a frog (that right there could be knowledge a druid in a party might know which could benefit the party after a deadly encounter). Let us look further. It is also wise to address the spring with a short prayer or incantation when you are taking water from it (again, the druid could be useful here). We all know that nature spirits can be quite touchy if you don’t approach them properly and demonstrate enough deference and respect! As it says in the entry (“It was also safest to collect water during the daytime when the invisible forces were at their weakest – at night you never knew what kind of mischievous beings would follow you back into your house.” p. 44).

Finally, consider what exciting possibilities this could open up for an adventure: “The shining reflection of a still pool or lake was thought to be a window into the Other World [and this] could reveal glimpses of the future” (ibid). But if you spend too long gazing into the spring, “the nymph living down in the depths could steal away your reflection and along with it your soul” (ibid). There are some amazing opportunities to have a druidic or nature-based character interact with this spring guardian and bring forth healing powers (if done in the right way!), and moreover, you have a great opportunity to get glimpses of the Other World or the future…but this is not guaranteed and there are consequences for players that are too greedy for knowledge and power! I know that the Källrå is going to become a part of my C&C game!

Källrå: Nymph of the Springs/Spring Guardian

Next, consider the Näcken (The Neck). This is a mysterious water spirit which lives in rivers, rapids, brooks, and lakes. If you see lilies that are in flower, that could be a sign that the Neck might be nearby. They have long, greenish-black hair with dark eyes. One unique characteristic of the Näcken is that it is an expert musician that can distort the minds of people and spellbind them with the sound of its music (it could be a fiddle, flute, or harp). If the Näcken is seen to be crying “while he is playing, it is a sure sign something unpleasant is about to happen” (p.57).

Consider the following possibilities for a player with a bard. Approaching the Näcken in the correct way could give them access to supernatural musical performances to spellbind their audience. But you must get this right! “The Neck can teach his musical skills to anyone who is brave enough to try” (ibid). They must go to a “fast-flowing river or crossroads for three Thursday nights in a row and sit there playing.” On the third night the Näcken will appear and at that point it is important to have a black cat with you, for the Näcken will demand that as their payment. The bard will want to be on their guard during the entire lesson, for the Näcken will try to lure their pupil into the water source they are at and drown them! But if the bard survives the lesson, they will be able to play such entrancing music that “even chairs and tables would begin to jerk and move about” (ibid). But the Näcken will warn that certain melodies are very dangerous, and they will be warned not to play them.

Once again, think of the possibilities for a character and how this can enrich a campaign! There are some great powers that one could gain, but there is also great risks as well. A player would want to have their character thoroughly research the materials and procedures involved in approaching and interacting with creatures like these (this could end up being an adventure or adventures in themselves), and if they get as far as beginning the rituals and training then there is the risk of losing their mind, their soul, or any number of things.

I have just provided a sneak peek at two of the creatures in Vaesen, there are over 30 in the book. The stories are enjoyable and entertaining. The art is evocative and provides a look and feel that stands out from the familiar gaming art we find in RPG products. Whether for personal enjoyment or gaming, this is a good book to have to fill you with wonder and spur your imagination.