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NESP Reviews


Viking Civilization

by Axel Olrik

reviewed by Álfta “Svanni” Óðinssen

        I am going to give two reviews for this book. The first will be the short review and the second will be the long review.

Short Review:

If you can find a copy of this book, get it no matter how much money it costs you.

Long Review:

Now for the long review. The author, Danish scholar Axel Olrik, wrote this gem of a book in 1927 and it was translated into English by the American Scandinavian Foundation in 1930. His work is frequently sited by later scholars including Turville-Petre in whose notes for his book, Myth and Religion of the North, you will find Olrik's name cited often. There is no book I have read that presents the true heart and soul of what genuine Heathenism was than this book by Olrik, and I include Turville-Petre in that. For all Turville-Petre's brilliance in providing sources, his interpretations about what the true heart of Heathen tradition, at times, leaves some to be desired. Olrik, on the other hand, takes those sources and is able to construct an extremely accurate picture of the spiritual and ethical life of Northern European Heathens. If you want to know what Heathenism was really like, then this is the book for you.
        When reading this book one must keep in mind that the word Olrik uses to describe the land owning freemen, “peasant,” should not be confused with the later defination of the word under later Anglo-Saxon rule in England. Contrarary to the popular opinion of that the ethics and religion of the North were based on the “Vikings,” Olrik shows that the culture, ethics and religion of the North came from the land owning freemen. This was not a culture of rampaging maniacs who raped and pillaged where ever they went, but the culture of a people closely connected to the land they lived on, and their kin and tribe. It was a culture that produced a high ethic that no religion could look on with disdain.         

“This peasant society, though numerically large, did not have a great influence on the intellectual life of the people, for it was not precisely the anvil on which new thoughts were forged. Its chief contributions to literature were paragraphs of the law pronounced at the things, and alliterative verse containing rules of conduct illustrated by striking examples. To this may be added a certain domestic industry of skaldic verse and – as a late but brilliant exception, called forth by special conditions – the Icelandic sagas. But even if the direct contribution is not large, we shall find, when we look more closely, that the peasant life, with its pride, its consciousness of racial continuity, and its faithful adherence to those next of kin, is at the very foundation of the entire culture of the people. Even if the contribution of the chieftain's hall is the first and most noticeable, a deeper study will soon reveal the figure of the peasant rising from it.” (Olrik. p.26-27)

        This is a very important point that Olrik goes on to illustrate. While the warriors and rulers receive the lion-share of attention with modern audiences it is often overlooked that there ethics and world view springs directly from that land owning freeman. Basing one's views of Heathenism on the warriors and kings who sprung from such a culture and neglecting the foundation they sprang from is like picking a flower and expecting it to remain healthy without stem or roots. Just like that flower any attempt at basing one's view of Heathenry on the warrior aspect alone results in eventual decay and withering.
One of the most gratifying parts of the book is how he shows the true nature of the gods and goddesses instead of the later slanderous ideals that have grown up about them in the later years of the Viking Age. The gods were the bearers of social ideas and as such, the ethics of the culture come from Othinn himself.

“The gods are not only helpers to the individual, in so far as he can gain their favor; they are also the bearers of social ideas. The sanctity of the oath is such an idea, as it appears in the oath over a weapon; the warrior walks out into an open field, lays his sword and shield on the ground before him, and prays that, should he break his oath, his weapons may not be his aids, but his ruin. While known among other Germanic peoples, this oath is particularly prominent among Scandinavians from the period of the oldest records. Throughout the Middle Ages we find this permanent form of oath; the wanderer swears with his hand on his spear, the horseman with his foot in the stirrup, the skipper on the deck of his boat. The inviolability of the popular assembly, the peace of the grave, and, to a certain extent, the weal of society as a whole are under the protection of the gods.” (Olrik, p.50)

One of the most important things that Olrik displays in this book is the decline in ethics that occurred during the Viking Age. This is an important section of the book for those of us who live our lives by the Heathen tradition today, especially when we have so many groups and individuals basing their ideals of what Heathenism is, on the ill, outlaw ideas of the “Viking Age” Vikings. One must keep in mind that the Vikings were not a people. The word Viking refers to an occupation. In the Viking Age proper (roughly 800 C.E to 1100 C.E.) it was in this occupation where we see the highest decline in ethics. Olrik describes the excesses far to common in the Viking Age:

“In addition to cruelty, gluttony in food and drink was common, as well as lack of self-control with regard to women. Ugly evidences of the crudeness and greed for gold common in frontier societies were here apparent.” (Olrik, p.99-100)

        Olrik also deals with the other foundation of Heathen tradition, the heroic tradition. He shows how the heroic tradition sprang directly out of the tradition of the land owning freeman and the ideal of kinship.
        The later part of the book deals with an ideal that may come as a complete surprise to most Heathens today and that is that Christianity in Scandinavia was
very “Heathen” in nature.

Nevertheless, this early Christian era, the eleventh and a part of the twelfth century, was a period in which society developed in a peaceful direction, though on the basis of the heritage from the fathers. It produced no powerful or peculiar expression of the new ideas – no ecclesiastical poetry like that of the Anglo-Saxons – but it matured the tendencies that had manifested themselves earlier, since this period became the epoch of the laws and sagas.” (Olrik, p.150)

        These really are just a few of the major ideas that Olrik presents since there is no way for me to really cover them all in a review. Be sure though, you will come away from reading this book with a completely new (and what is more a much more accurate) view about what true Heathen tradition was. The plain and simple recommendation is to get this book. Not matter what it takes, just get it.

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