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!

An Age of Insecurity and Anxiety


It was an age of insecurity and anxiety. Nationalism had transitioned to cosmopolitanism. People had developed a new sense of individualism, but with this came a feeling of alienation and insecurity. This was what the Hellenistic-Roman Age was experiencing from roughly 330 BCE to the 4th century CE.

Over the last couple days I’ve been revisiting some old university texts from my undergraduate days, as well as delving into additional books in this area. I have always been interested in transitions in thought and belief over time, especially when it is being driven by anxiety and existential angst.

That in itself is intellectually interesting, but the fact that we ourselves are in a time of anxiety and existential angst makes philosophical reflection on these ideas even more important and relevant to work out how we can respond to what is happening now.

How do people respond to thoughts and feelings of insignificance and neglect? Who responds with emotional reactions? Who responds with overly intellectual analysis? Who tries to merge the two? What causes shifts to extremism? Religions have been one of the greatest forms of unification as well as division. If we can get some grasp on this matter as it has played itself out over history, then we might acquire a greater understanding of the self, both individually and collectively.

For the Hellenistic-Roman period after the success of Alexander, it was the mystery cults (e.g. Demeter, Dionysus, Mithras) that became the spiritual solution for the people’s needs. It was purification rights, ecstasy, and promised rewards of immortality that helped to satisfy the inner longing of the average individual. For the educated minority there were three philosophies that helped meet their needs: Stoicism, Epicurianism, and a revived version of Platonism.

As this span of time developed we also saw Jewish-Hellenistic apocalyptic writings emerge, Gnosticism, and Christianity. As this period came to an end Mithraism and Gnosticism fell by the way-side and Judaism and Christianity continued and evolved into the Medieval period where change continued unabated.

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What Is Religion?

[Originally published 25 August, 2014]

Religion can be difficult to define – what should be included or excluded in the definition?  Scholars in different disciplines have emphasized different aspects of what religion might encompass.  In the book ‘Expressing the Sacred,’ James L. Cox initially puts forth 17 definitions which have been organized into 5 categories (although a definition might actually fit within more than one category, and you might even want to mix and match definitions, or even think there are other and better definitions that aren’t covered in the list provided).  I present the list below.

What Do You Think?  Do these definitions provide you with an agreeable definition of what religion is and what it encompasses?


1. Theological definitions (A theological definition makes the central criterion of religion belief in a transcendent power which is usually personified as a Supreme Being, but is sometimes conceived as being diffused through powerful spiritual beings, or is held to be an impersonal, mysterious, supernatural force):

a. Religion is believing in God.

b. Religion is belief in spiritual beings.

c. Religion is the life of God in the soul of man.

d. Religion is a mystery, at once awesome and attractive.


2. Moral definitions (A moral definition makes the central criterion of religion a code of correct behaviour generally affirmed by believers as having its source in an unquestioned and unquestionable authority):

a. Religion is leading a good life.

b. Religion is morality tinged with emotion.

c. Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands.

d. Religion is a sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties.


3. Philosophical definitions (A philosophical definition makes the central criterion for religion the posting of an idea or concept which the believer interprets as ultimate or final in relation to the cosmic order and to human existence):

a. Religion is what man does with his solitariness. 

b. Religion is the relation of man to his own being, but as a being outside of himself.

c. Religion is ultimate concern.


4. Psychological definitions (A psychological definition makes the central criterion of religion feelings or emotions within people which cause them to appeal to forces greater than themselves to satisfy those feelings):

a. Religion is the result of seeking comfort in a world which, dispassionately considered, is a kind of terrifying wilderness.

b. Religion is some kind of profound inner experience.

c. Religion is a universal obsessive neurosis.


5. Sociological definitions (A sociological definition makes the central criterion of religion the existence of a community of people which is identified, bound together and maintained by its beliefs in powers or forces greater than the community itself):

a. Religion is the opium of the people.

b. Religion is the conservation of values.

c. Religion is the co-operative quest after a completely satisifying life.


Looking through the list above (and confining ourselves to just what is on the list), I think religion probably possesses elements that can be drawn from all 5 of the categories.  So for the ‘average’ religious believer (whatever that might mean!) I might think that religion is most basically connected with 3c (ultimate concern), but this idea then gets narrowed down and more focused when you include the belief in spiritual beings (1b), a desire on the part of the religious person to lead a good life (2a), a need to engage in a co-operative quest after a satisfying life (5c), and a seeking for some kind of profound inner experience (4c).


Alternatively, if we were to look at a fundamentalist religious individual, then we might find that they believe in a God (1a), seek a being outside of themselves (3b), they may recognize all duties as divine commands (2c), their conservatism might enforce a conservation of values (5b), and they may very well have an obsessive neurosis (4c).


I think we also have to ask – what of non-religious people?  Do they fit within any of these categories?  If so, are we all to some degree religious, or do we need to come up with a new term?


[The above table was taken from: James L. Cox, “Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (1996), pages 4-8.]