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!

Norse History Books

As a philosopher and historian, I crave the ability to understand the past. One of the areas I focus on is Norse history from the Viking era and how it connects with what preceded it and how future generations have developed from it. Below are some of the books that I have read or am reading that are informing me.

Neil Price’s books on Viking history and late Iron Age cognitive archaeology.

Neil Price is a great resource for understanding Viking Age-Scandinavia. The Viking Way, based on his Ph.D. examines the cognitive archaeology of late Iron Age Scandinavia. He provides insights into Iron Age Scandinavian beliefs on deities such as Óðinn and Þórr, and Norse magical practices (e.g. Galdr – incantations, and Seiðr – norse magic concerned with fate). I am only a couple of chapters into this book, but I really enjoying the in-depth academic investigation into late iron age Norse magic and sorcery. I really feed off of a solid academic book that has a point to make on a particular subject matter and does it by comparing and contrasting their research with others who have researched in that area.

Children of Ash and Elm is Price’s thorough (624 pages) overview of the Viking Age, . Since he is an archaeologist, this book will provide the perspective of an archeologist, examining their politics, cosmology, and religion.

Byock’s classic Medieval Iceland, the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók) and The Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók).

Jesse Byock has done extensive writing on the Viking Age, having done translations of many Norse sources. I have acquired his book Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power to gain a better contextual understanding when I read the Sagas.

The Íslendingabók is a short work which describes the settlement of Iceland, the establishment of the Alþingi (Assembly), partitioning Iceland into quadrants, the discovery of Greenland, and the Icelandic conversion to Christianity c.1000 CE.

The Landnámabók tells the story of how the island of Iceland was found.

Haywood’s book is a straightforward history that progresses by region (for example, there is a chapter on Lindesfarne, followed by Paris, followed by Orkney). This allows me to dip in and read about a particular geographical region when needed.

Winroth’s book is a history by subject matter. So with this book I can read a chapter on ships, boats, and ferries if I am interested in that, then if my interests change to farm life, there is a chapter I can read on that.

Friðriksdóttir’s book covers women in the Viking world. This book takes the approach of what life would be like for a woman in that time from infancy to old age (each chapter covers a different time in a woman’s life).

I do have other books, but I consider these the highlights.

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!

History & RPGs: Shields

How did the functions of shields change over time? What were the functions of different shield sizes and shapes?

Some Medieval fantasy RPGs have rules regarding weapon types vs. armor types. Medieval fantasy RPGs also frequently have critical hit systems or charts that cover certain battle techniques. Back when I ran AD&D 2nd edition, we did initially make use of weapon type vs. armor type, but in the end it involved too much book-keeping and slowed down combat so we stopped. On the other hand, The Complete Fighters Handbook had a rich amount of combat tactics, melee maneuvers, and called shots, which we did enjoy using. I now use Castles & Crusades and enjoy using the combat maneuvers they have available (and as I page through my Complete Fighters Handbook in preparing this blog, I am reminded I could bring back a few more dynamic combat maneuvers from 2nd edition).

In the Modern History TV video, I have linked here (roughly 15 minutes long), Jason Kingsley covers three different shield styles and describes how they were used, and what modifications may have been made to them depending on whether the user was on foot, on horseback, or if they were using missile weapons (like crossbows). This is can add a rich addition to your RPG game for combat flavour and to open up the combat techniques available.

For example, the shield style used by the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons was more easily knocked aside by weapons in one-on-one combat, opening up the warrior’s chest and abdominal region for a thrust or a slash, yet they could be used more successfully together in a shield wall formation. However, once you move forward in time and the shields become smaller and more curved, then it was more difficult to knock it aside to open up the lone warrior to a blow, yet it also made them less effective for a shield wall (indeed, they were no longer using shield walls by then). In my C&C game I have a variety of cultures represented (Norse, Celtic, Knightly, Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian), so these cultural differences will allow me to bring in different styles of combat.

Enjoy the video, and perhaps you will find a way to add a unique twist to your RPG combat.

History & RPGs: Chain and Plate Armor

I am always looking for ways to bring together historical understanding and practices to enhance my Castles & Crusades games. Modern History TV is a YouTube channel I enjoy watching since Jason Kingsley provides the history behind a medieval practice or idea and supports it by demonstrating how it was done as accurately as he can, and when he is speculating he is honest about it. All of this is very informative for someone interested in history and for those seeking greater insights into incorporating a concept or practice into their RPG.

In the first video linked here, Kingsley examines the history of the chain shirt, how it was made, how the style changed over time, how effective it was for protection, and how easy it was to put on and take off. The chain shirt was used by numerous cultures for over one thousand years and after this video you get a good idea why it had such consistent continual use.

One thing that is presented in many medieval RPG’s is how long it takes to put on and take off armor, and it seems every RPG has a different set of numbers to explain how long it takes to don/doff armor, many of which differ from each other. As is demonstrated in this video, putting on a chain shirt takes about 30 seconds, if you are adding your belt and sword it could take an extra minute.

In this second video Kingsley carefully goes through the pieces of plate armor, explaining why they were shaped the way they were, and what the purpose of stop ribs, loops, straps and grooves served on the armor. As he states, armor encapsulates a story and every dent is a reminder of a particular situation where that damage occurred. This is important for me and my C&C games, because all my common monsters, when they score a critical hit, rather than cause hit point damage, instead cause damage to armor and weapon, either by breaking shields and weapons, or reducing the body armor by one point of AC per critical hit. This means players need to spend money to repair their weapons and armor, and several of my players as a result have learnt armor-smithing and weapon-smithing as professions as they level up so that they can do their own repairs.

Unlike the chain shirt, which could be put on in about one minute, plate armor took 25 to 30 minutes, and each knight had a retinue of people to assist them in putting it on. The humans in my C&C world are roughly at the technology level of the mid-12th century, and my dwarves are at the level of the 14th century (when it comes to armor), as a result, since plate armor wasn’t invented until the 14th century, humans can only get plate armor if they can get a dwarven armor smith to make it for them, and at four times the cost listed in the Players Handbook! So there is not a lot of plate armor in my games. Nonetheless, if some human knight manages to get plate armor (a much greater sign of prestige and influence in my game), it is important to remind them that with that increased armor class comes the need for extra time to put it on and having an assistant.

Medieval Icelandic Sagas

I love history, folklore, and literature. I’ve been meaning to get into the Icelandic Sagas for a while, but never made the big leap. But I recently got the motivation to sign up for The Medieval Icelandic Sagas online MOOC from the University of Iceland.

A selection of my Icelandic Saga texts.

Signing up for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is a mixed bag. Because you can sign up for it at any time and can take as long as you want, I suspect most people may start but never finish it, or they may finish but never get the most out of it since it is easy to coast or skip through them. Some of the presentations can also be boring. However, if you are self-motivated, then a MOOC can be a great way to augment your knowledge on some topic.

In the case of this Icelandic Saga MOOC, I get in one neat package a six week overview of all aspects of the Sagas. The syllabus is as follows:
Week 1: Historical Overview
Week 2: Manuscripts
Week 3: Landscape and Archaeology
Week 4: Saga Characters
Week 5: Paganism and Christianity
Week 6: The Supernatural

I have an undergraduate degree in classical civilizations and graduate degrees in philosophy, so I have the skills to do academic research. What this course provides is a surface look at six key areas to begin study and I can then bring to bear my abilities to build upon it. This is something interesting for me at a personal level in two ways (i) I am shifting my research into medieval studies, and (ii) Norse culture plays a large part in my Castles & Crusades campaigns and my developing game world, and this will allow me to bring that to life in a richer way.

I’ve completed the first two weeks of work so far and look forward to the rest. I plan to space the remainder out through the end of the year. When this is done I should have a much richer view of medieval Iceland.

If anyone is interested in looking into this, here is a link:
https://www.edx.org/course/the-medieval-icelandic-sagas-2