I actually finished two books in the past 24 hours. The previously mentioned Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by Hilda Davidson (GMNE) was one of them that I completed and, in a mere few hours, I read The Way of Fire and Ice: A Living Tradition of Norse Paganism by Ryan Smith (WFI). One I bought and the other I had on loan from the library.
Let me say, first off, that neither was exactly what I was hoping it would be, but both were about what I expected them to be.
GMNE was a great survey of some of the myths and stories, and then it did a bit of a Golden Bough (Frazier) and attempted to draw out some similarities in the various stories and make a more cohesive whole out of a tattered framework of tales without a centralized hierarchy to formalize the folk traditions. She also drew comparisons with regional religions and traditions that may have been influencers and tried to go back to other times and places as much as she felt confident she could to draw parallels. It was about what I was expecting and, frankly, I found the sections centered around known and assumed ecstatic practices at the time to be the most compelling — although I doubt that was her actual intention. The chapters concerning Odin and his shaman-like traits, and those of Hel, keeper of the dead were the sections I found most enlightening and I had to admit that I found plenty of her arguments compelling, even those prefaced by the equivalent of “we don’t know this for sure, but it seems reasonable to think based on…” such and such that something seems like it should hold true via extrapolation based on other things that we do know that do have evidence that supports the relationships.
The writing was not too filled with jargon and esoteric expectations, and I felt she tried to be fair, although I do think her treatment of the role of women was a little glossed over with more attention consumed on the normal “big guys”. I think she could have balanced it a bit more, but maybe the literature doesn’t address the women of Northern European myth as much as I’ve been lead to believe. I would have liked to see some “drawing down the moon” treatment, although not as much as the book I referenced. But there is Freya, Hel, the Dis and the Norn, all of which had only short sections, though the Valkyrie were covered at length as she discussed Odin.
If you’re interested in the Northern European religions and the limited information we have on the pre-Christian practices, you could do far worse than read GMNE. There may be better books out there, but it was scholarly and supported by plenty of footnotes as meaningful inclusions. I felt it was free from nonsense and mystical mumble-jumble, and had some frank points to make about the pre- and early-Christian folks in the area.
And that brings me to the quicker read I had. I found WFI an easy book to speed read, largely because it did what I feared it was going to do when I saw the Llewellyn mark on the publisher.
Aside: I want to point out that Llewellyn has put out a number of decent quality books over the years. But, in my experience, they trend towards How to Be a _____ Pagan book like you might find in the checkout aisle in the grocery store. Fairly formulaic and light on supporting material. More opinion than scholarship.
WFI sells itself as an alternative to the other Norse/Heathen/Folk traditions out there, it even makes a point of utilizing the phrase repeatedly: “Radical Norse Paganism”. Unfortunately, although it bucks the other systems a bit, it is still dependent on the idea of reconstructionism. It denies this in the early part of the book, but I saw very little that was radically different from what I know of the other traditions. The author may indeed believe he and his cohorts are being forward-thinkers, able to break the chains that bind from the past, but the language and the tactics involved are not much different than you’ll find at a typical hearth and more comingled with the ideas of wicca and Native Americanism than I think thee author is willing to admit. I think the most radical thing about his approach is that the practice he promotes is vehemently anti-racist — but more in a reactionary way than in a constructive manner. Being anti-gender, anti-racist, anti-discrimination of all kinds may be admirable, but I don’t know that it’s the basis of a religion that walks and talks and quacks like several others in the same vein.
I went in looking for some potential insight and felt I came out having read yet another one of the formulaic “How to ___” books of moderate quality that Llewellyn puts out (and charges me a premium to read). Thank goodness I was able to get a copy via the library; I might have thrown it across the room in disgust if I had paid the asking price of $14 (because it is a quality paperback (QP) instead of a mass market paperback (MMP)). It followed the formula: Intro, Warnings, Background (lite!), Ethics, Finding a Space, Rites and Practices, Spells/Divination/Runes/etc., Follow-up/Conclusion. The references are sparse and subject to potential broken hyperlinks instead of more permanent references and quite a few were not footnotes of the reference sort, but unsupported commentary.
In other words, typical pagan/wicca/new age fodder. I don’t think real practitioners along these lines need spells and divination, but at least he eschewed the whole “candle magic” section that seems to be absolutely necessary to every Llewellyn book.
Was it a complete waste of time? Noooot really. I won’t be reading it again, but I did find it interesting in one small section that GMNE was lacking on: the vættr; supernatural beings that include elves, dwarves, giants/jotun and, most importantly to me, nature spirits. While GMNE did cover the former part of the list, it was almost bereft of any information with respect to the nature spirits. WFI reverses this view and looks more at the infusion of spirit throughout all we are and see and work with. And, while it smacked more of fairy worship than actual spirit reverence in parts, I do appreciate the attempt to look at what is an important element to the ecstatic journey.
I also appreciate the codification of the ethics, but I don’t see how they are much different from the Heathen code. Different words, but essentially the same outcome. Again, I think it is a false sense of being different, but being blind to being more same-like than all that radical. In fact, “he doth protest too much”, which points to the fact that the author is aware that the similarities are greater than the sum of differences. So, I found something of value between the covers, and I was greatly pleased I hadn’t spent the money I’d considered spending on it.
Now… does that mean you shouldn’t read it? Not necessarily. It is not a book for scholarship, it is more a book for self-help. It may be very good to someone who is looking for a means and way to practice and, and references for the very light mythology contained within. I’m a hardcore reader of these kinds of materials and I prefer less touchy-feely material and instead prefer stuff like you might find in a college textbook. It’s touchy-feely, which is good for those looking to feel better about choosing a Northern European tradition although white supremists have tried to co-op and pervert the folk themes since the “blood and soil” days of the Nazis. Whereas: I am not looking for that kind of information. I’m more into digging deep and drawing out connections that may not be on anyone else’s agendas (spoiler: I’ve not found one person in life who in interested in the connections across the world that I am interested in understanding). I like fragments that click into the jigsaw puzzle I am missing pieces for. As for a book that connects people, it does the job — just be aware that it isn’t quite so radical as it would have you believe.