Friday, April 9, 2021

Neil Price, "The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia"

The Viking Way is an amazing, impressive, fascinating and profoundly learned book, but not always in a good way.

It started as Neil Price's dissertation back in the 1990s, and a first edition appeared in 2002. At that time it was a standard-sized academic book, with very few illustrations. The second edition of 2019 is a large format book full of pictures, including amazing drawings of burials by Thorhallr Thrainson, and it also has added text and a new final chapter. In Price's praise, I will say this: I have been reading about the Vikings for going on forty years, and I learned many new things from this book.


It starts badly, because it still has the first chapter from that dissertation, one of the most appalling strings of flattering citations I have ever waded through; if I had been on his committee I would have told him to throw it out. Price seems very worried that you, the reader, might think he had not read a single important work about the Vikings, so they all get at least a sentence. He wants you to know that he is a scholar of great breadth, so he name checks Braudel, Simone Beauvoir, Konrad Lorentz, Foucault, and on and on. But he is also politically up-to-date and lectures us about the perils of western scholars using their knowledge of indigenous peoples to misrepresent them, or colonize them, or whatever. He is hip to Queer Studies. He seems positively terrified of offending any scholar currently working on Viking religion and magic, so he cites them all. There are a lot.

Modern Reconstruction of a Norse Magical Staff

Parts of the book are little encyclopedias. I enjoyed some this material: the list of all Odin's known names and titles, and those of the Valkyries; the description of every single iron staff recovered from a Norse grave (36 pages of iron staffs); the categorizing of every type of magic performed by Norse sorceresses. But it is certainly not light reading. Even harder going is the discussion of the words for Norse magic and magical practitioners. It is not Price's fault that the terminology varied across time and space in ways we need to understand if we want to read the sources properly, but the topic is very obscure and Price's account is hard to follow.

What redeems The Viking Way is Price's profound enthusiasm for his subject. I have never read a scholar who conveyed more love for his material than Price does. He thinks Viking magic is absolutely the most fascinating thing in the world, and he has thrown his whole soul into mastering everything there is to know about it. 

A strange burial from Sweden: a young woman buried sitting on an older man's lap, with a speak thrust into the ground above them, perhaps dedicating them to Odin

The main organizing theme of The Viking Way is shamanism, and the main question is: to what extent was Viking magic and religion shamanistic? This matters, says Price, because shamanism is not a random assemblage of techniques; it makes sense only if you believe certain things about the universe. Shamans imagine a universe full of spirits, and they believe that the actions of those spirits determine much of what happens to humans. The shamanistic universe is not friendly, but full of terrors, and they tend to think the whole universe will end badly, its fate is already fixed. The powers of a shaman can be used to mitigate, a little, the suffering of people trapped on this cruel planet; but shamans are just as likely to be troublemakers who are actively making things worse.

Viking shamanism has been debated for a century because it is a great problem. There is much evidence one could bring up to defend the notion. First and foremost is the story of Odin, chief of the Norse gods, who repeatedly acts exactly like a shaman. He rides on an eight-legged horse, as many Siberian shamans did in their visions. He has animal familiars. He hung himself on a tree for nine nights to obtain wisdom; for some shamans this was not a metaphor but something they actually did, spending many days and nights, tied to trees or standing on platforms, seeking. In one of the most famous Norse poems Odin describes all the magic spells he knows, and all can be found in the literature of Siberian shamanism. I find it hard to see how anyone could argue that Odin is not a shamanistic figure, although of course people do argue that.

The Norse were intimately acquainted with shamanistic neighbors, the Sami. The archaeology suggests that the Sami used to live farther south than they have in historic times, and Price has examples of what look like contemporary Norse and Sami communities on opposite sides of the same lake in central Sweden. The sagas tell us that Norwegians sometimes hired Sami magicians to cast spells for them, and several Norse sorcerers are said to have been trained by the Sami. So the medieval Norse must have known quite a lot about shamanism in its Sami form.

Norse magical practitioners made a habit of prophesying about the future, staging rituals that have much in common with those some Siberian shamans used when they predicted the future.

One of the most striking things about shamanism among Siberian peoples and Native Americans is its connections to sexuality and gender identity. In many cultures shamans are notoriously horny, and their public performances often involve simulated sex. In other places they must be completely chaste.  Many shamans are bisexual, and many dress as the opposite sex when performing their rituals. Among the Chukchi of eastern Siberia the most powerful male shamans stop being men and pass into a third gender, the "soft men," from then on dressing as women and doing women's work. Similar ideas are found among some Native Americans.

(Contemporary trans people are very interested in these gender shifts, but it should be noted that all these communities thought shamans were crazy, and gender transformation was often viewed as traumatic; among the Chukchi the process began when the shaman was raped and subjugated by a powerful demon while in a trance, and informants said this is so awful that a majority who experience it commit suicide.)

And there is a lot of sexuality and sexual identity swirling around Norse magic. Price cites a Norwegian law code that listed two insults so heinous one could legally respond to them with immediate violence: to call a man a passive homosexual, or to call him a sorcerer. The insinuation is that this was the same thing. There are several hints in the sagas (which were written by Christians and are reticent about sex) that male sorcerers were homosexual. Female sorcerers were often thought of as promiscuous. I think Price makes the case that the sexual issues surrounding Norse magic are parallel with those of Siberian shamanism.

But here's the problem: there is not, in Norse literature, a single clear description of a seer or seeress going into a trance state and returning from it with knowledge gathered in the Other Lands. Since that is the fundamental act that defines shamanism, how can we say that the Vikings were shamanistic?

Neil Price goes at this question from every angle he can think of. He pays particular attention to archaeology. A great deal of magical paraphernalia has been excavated from Norse tombs, including several women who seem to have been sorceresses. (See here on the Sorceress of Fyrkat, the most famous.) I love this stuff: the detailed analysis of amulets and seeds, the question of whether artifacts grouped together were in bags or hung from belts, how to tell a magical iron staff from a roasting spit.

The archaeology confirms the picture we get from the sagas, which is that the Norse believed in magical powers, and that practitioners were common and important figures. But it doesn't really tell us if anyone was a shaman in the full sense.

This brings us to Price's second main thesis about the Viking world, the centrality of violence. Other than the myths about Odin, the one place where we clearly see Vikings acting like shamans is on the battlefield. Berserks who fought in self-induced battle fury, beyond fear or pain, communing with the battle spirits (Valkyries) that haunted every warzone but could only be seen by the wise, are the mostly clearly shamanistic figures in the Norse world. To Price this makes perfect sense, because he believes the lives of Norse men (and warrior women, whom he believes in very much) were built around a cult of killing and death. Price's Odin is a death god first, and second and third, too. The Norse understood that shamanism was a way of seeking wisdom; that, after all, is what they imagined Odin doing, and there is a famous poem called Voluspa in which a seeress lays out the future doom of the world. But for themselves they were mainly interested in magic as a way of inflicting harm.

So to Price, Norse shamanism was a way they understood the cruel, violent universe in which they lived, and a way in which they sought to inflict more cruelty and violence on their enemies.

For a book like The Viking Way, though, a summary of the argument misses much of the point. The point is to ponder images of shamans in bear costumes set beside fragmentary felt masks from the Viking age, to read the roll of Odin's 215 titles, to imagine a seeress speaking from the high seat about the year to come, to imagine the king's berserks in the prow of his ship, shrieking and clashing their weapons as they try to enter a state of battle madness. To imagine ourselves as the archaeologist whose trowel uncovers the face of a sacrificial victim, dedicated to Odin by a spear thrust into the ground above her. It is the details that tell the story, and there are few books with more grand details than this one.


David said...

As fascinating as I thought it would be.

It strikes me that Price's first chapter sounds like it's of a piece with the way he loves the Vikings--giving you all of Odin's names, etc. In his defense, some CYA is well warranted. There *are* a lot of academic reviewers who see their job as hunting out whatever secondary source an author has missed and then lambasting them for it. Often this is done with a real edge of "gotcha" Schadenfreude. Also, as you know, there are plenty of dissertation advisors who see their main role as making sure the study begins with something precisely like his chapter 1 (and, perhaps, to teach their tender charges the value of CYA). There was probably someone on his committee who smiled contentedly over a job well done.

FWIW, one of my own main interests is in the way cultures are divided, and I wonder if there wasn't among the Norse an opposing culture of good sense, reticence, and restraint. I think one may see signs of this in the Icelandic sagas. As you've said, berserks appear as outsiders and convenient foils there, and the sagas are quite laconic about sex. Saga heroes do do violence, but the preoccupation seems to be that a good man makes sure he's done a proper job of getting the objects of his rage outlawed before killing them. I'm reluctant to see all this as just a Christian import (after all, if that's the case, my question would be, how was Norse society divided before Christianity?). Perhaps one thing that drove the Icelandic settlement was horror at a mainland society that had gone too far on violence and weirdness. Of course, the Icelanders also preserved a lot of the lore of Price's "Viking Way"--but perhaps their fascination, like that of modern academics, was that of outsiders peaking in (the same way moderns can't let go of, say, the Manson family).

G. Verloren said...

"But here's the problem: there is not, in Norse literature, a single clear description of a seer or seeress going into a trance state and returning from it with knowledge gathered in the Other Lands. Since that is the fundamental act that defines shamanism, how can we say that the Vikings were shamanistic?"

Is the presence of a trance state really the defining characteristic of shamanism?

Because I would posit that the belief in a separate "spirit world" which one normally cannot communicate with is the foundational aspect, and that the exact method of achieving that communication is secondary.

For example, we don't classify the Ancient Greeks as having been shamanistic just because trances were sometimes employed in certain divinations and healing rituals. Their cosmology (as I understand it) lacked a separate spirit world - the gods lived in and shared the same fundamental reality as mortals, dwelling on the literal Mount Olympus, meddling in mortal affairs as routine, etc. Even the "underworld" was a physical place you could literally just travel to the entrance of if you really wanted to, as Orpheus did - no trance required.

We also don't consider examples like Sufi Muslim Dervishes or Christian Shakers to be shamanistic, despite employing ecstatic dance and other practices involving altered states, specifically with the intent to commune with heaven / the divine. If shamanism is truly defined by people going into trances and returning with knowledge from beyond the veil, surely that would qualify, no?

The Norse clearly believed in a "spirit world" which was separate from their own reality, and which required special rituals or powers to interact with. Does it really make sense to argue they weren't shamanistic just because they may (or may not) have failed to practice trance, specifically, as the method of communication? What are magic spells and other ritual acts, if not special ways to pierce the veil and tap into the supernatural world beyond our limited mundane reality? Why is trance itself so important - more important, even, than basic cosmology?

Consider, also, that some shamanistic traditions don't involve a seer or shaman going into a trance to travel to the other world - some involve spirits from the other world coming to our own and inhabiting the shaman instead.

In fact, some don't even require a shaman, per se - some traditions involve spirit possession against the will of the host. Sometimes a trance is required to "channel" a spirit into a host, but other times a spirit possessing someone causes them to enter a trance like state - it is a symptom of possession, rather than a path to it.

Moreover, some possessions don't even involve people! Animals can be possessed - they clearly aren't shamans, and usually don't enter "trances" as we normally think of them - their unusual behavior while possessed is evidence for the possession, but can surely it's a stretch to call that a trance? Corpses can be possessed, and that's an even bigger stretch! Even inanimate objects can be possessed in some cases! If a spirit passes over from the other world and possesses a rock, surely that's still shamanism even if there's clearly no trance involved?