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Preparing For The End: A Narrative Study Of Vafþrúðnismál – Andrew McGillivray (2015)

It does not happen often that I review an unpublished work. I ran into this dissertation on (click on the cover). It is a 200+ page work “towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy”. An interesting read!

McGillivray gives a detailed overview of the sources we have of Norse mythology. Manuscripts, prints, their editions, differences, etc. The reason is to paint the picture of which Vafþrúðnismál is part. After this, the author is going to slice the text, making cross-references to other sources, giving context and explanation of each of the verses, alternatives to translations, etc.

For his analyses, McGillivray uses the works of Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Quite different authors you may think. Of Ricœur the author uses the method to break stories into segments, Gurevich provides “categories of medieval culture” and Eliade the “myth of eternal return”.

On the secondary level it is also hoped that from the formal analysis some conclusions can be drawn about the society for which these poems were important enough to write in manuscripts.

Thus we follow Odin traveling to meet a wise giants and challenge him to a duel of wisdom in order to become more wise himself. There are parallels in other known stories. Some of the information that is exchanged is more complete in these other sources or rather the contrary.

Because McGillivray takes his time to make his points, the work provides a wealth of information about Norse mythology, but also about the (older and more contemporary) scholarly investigations into this mythology. Preparing For The End is perhaps a bit dry and/or detailed for some, but certainly not as much as it could have been. I enjoyed reading this and wonder why the work has not been made available in print. Another work of the author is so maybe there is hope.

2015 University of Iceland

The Path Of Shadows – Gwendolyn Taunton (2018)

5 Essays in a little over 170 pages. The subject seems to be one of Taunton’s favourite (but less so mine): Greek mythology. With Taunton writing Nietzsche is never far away either.

The subjects span “chthonic Gods, oneiromancy & necromancy in ancient Greece”. Starting with Hades we continue with Nietzsche’s take on Greek myth. After Persephone there is a chapter about “divination, omens and prophecies [which] can be referred to as belonging to the Mantic Tradition.” The last subjects are a bit darker, dream magic (“oneimancy”) and magic concerning the dead (“necromancy”).

The author mostly collects information from different authors. This time quite some scholarly publications and journals are quoted. The subject not being entirely of my liking, I found the book an alright read. For people who have an interest in the darker side of ancient Greece, this book might be a summery of some not-too-recent, but neither ancient investigations into the subject.

2018 Manticore Press, isbn 0648299643

Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras – Ruck, Hoffman, Celdrán (2011)

This book is frequently referred to in “Alchemically Stoned” which is about the entheogenic origins of the symbolism of Freemasonry and which also looks at Mithraic symbols in Freemasonry. The current title is the other way around.

The authors of the present title are of the opinion that experiences with mushrooms and other mind-altering substances form the basis of the mysteries of Mithras. Mithras with his Phrygian hat (red and spotted) is actually a mushroom. The torchbearers stand on one leg for the same reason. Other symbols are looked at from the same perspective. The results are amusing, but seldom really convincing.

The also has large parts which have little to do with entheogens. Some theories about Mithraism are dealt with and, for example, the -to me- fairly credible ideas of Ulansey are debunked quite convincingly.

And then the authors point their arrows towards contemporary remains of Mithraic mysteries which they think to find in Freemasonry. Their chapters about Freemasonry are quite weak which really takes the book down. Information from exposés seems to be taken for granted, the history is sloppy and the references to the rituals bring mostly question marks.

It is nice to find an uncommon take on a subject that many have written about, but I had hoped for some more ‘quality’, especially from a book written by three people.

2011 City Lights, isbn 9780872864702

Teutonic Mythology * Viktor Rydberg (1891/2001)

Rydberg’s book is old enough to be available in cheap reprints and for free on the world wide web. Well over 700 pages of “Teutonic mythology”. The book is actually called Undersökningar i germanisk mythologi (Investigations into Germanic Mythology) and is translated into German as Deutsche Mythology. Yet, Rasmus B. Anderson opted for Teutonic Mythology rather then Germanic Mythology. Of course the book has the merit of being one of the first of its kind, but reading it nowadays, I would say that there is not all that much mythology in it. As a matter of fact, Rydberg seems to try to lead back all mythology to historical events (following Snorri Sturluson and Saxy Grammaticus). This leads to rather annoying lengthy substantiations about why Gudmund is Mimer, who Odin and his Aesir were and where mythological places are to be found. Not really my cup of tea. The up-part of the book is that Rydberg meticulously investigates and compares myths and sagas coming with thoughtprovocing suggestions.
Conclusion: nowadays no longer groundbreaking, but a good book to read if you are interested in this line of investigation.
1891 / 2001 Adamant Media Corporation, isbn 1402193912

Shahnameh by Ferdowski * Reuben Levy (translator) (1967/2001)

For decades I had wanted to read the “Shahnameh” and quite a while ago I ran into a very nice translation for little money. Happy I brought home the book, but when I started to read it, I was less happy. For some reason I cannot read stories. I do not care about plots, cannot remember who is who and I usually get bored after a few pages. Well, the “Shahnameh” is exactly that: a story. Perhaps not an ongoing one, but the work reads like a book. The complete title of the translation that I found runs: “Shahnameh, The Epic Of The Kings, the national epic of Persia by Ferdowski” it is “translated by Reuben Levy” and “revised by Amin Banani”. The translation was originally published by Routledge, but my printing is of the Iranian publisher Yassavoli. It comes with a large number of colour plates of drawings from some old Shahnameh manuscript. Some time ago I was in a museum (I forgot which) that also had quite a few of these plates. They certainly are beautiful and very nicely reprinted. As the title says, what we get is the story of the rulers of ancient Persia. The “Shahnameh” was written around 1000 CE. It starts with Hushang, but I cannot find in which period he ruled. He was supposedly the second Shah or king of Persia. In short chapters Ferdowski tells about the proceedings of an endless line of characters, quite in detail too sometimes. Happenings of wars, struggles, times of peace, fathers, sons and daughters, envious family members and a little woven through a bit of the old religion, Zoroaster and Christianity. The book is most likely not historically correct in our terms, but mythological upto a certain degree. Like I said, it all comes in a story and however the translation is nice, I have problems keeping my attention to it all. I did not read the book from cover to cover, but started scanning it for interesting passages. I now see that I got my book for a very good price, since Amazon has it listed for almost 10x of what I paid for it. There are other printings of Levy’s translation which I did not see, but the Yassavoli version certainly is a nice one. I also like the idea that I got the national epic from the country itself, especially when we all know how the current religion of Iran acts.
2001 Yassavoli, isbn 9643062082

The Hittites * O.R. Gurney (1952/1990)

A while ago I read about the Hittites, a people who lived in Asia Minor and held the middle between Indo-European and the Sumerian peoples. After having read a book with myths, here we have a book about the Hittites themselves. Gurney wrote his book in 1952, it has been revised three times by the time the version that I bought was printed. The book is mostly a history lesson. It goes from “the earliest period” to “the old kingdom” (1680-1420), “the empire” (1420-appr. 1200) to “the neo-Hittite kingdoms”. That is the first part of the book. In the next parts Gurney continues with the subjects “Hittite state and society”, “life and economy”, “law and institutions”, “warfare”, “languages and races”, “religion”, “literature” and “art”. The Hittites are known from the Old Testament as an Israelic tribe. The summing up of the Hittites as one of those tribes does not give them the credit they deserve. In fact, the Hittites formed a mighty people, rivaling with the Egyptians and the Sumerians of their time. Actually there was no thing as the Hittites. There were different peoples with different languages and different texts living in different times. Moreover, when the Hittites were at the peak of their power, they had excellent contact with other powerfull peoples and correspondence (often chiseled in stone!) was in a variety of languages, several with cuniform letters, but also one using hieroglyphs that are not unlike the Egyptian. The same goes for the divine pantheon. Inspite of the fact that there was a state religion, which was somewhat of an artificial conglomerate of the rest, the state supported local cults and also the Gods and Goddesses of neighbouring peoples found their places in the hearts of the Hittites. Especially because of the mix of Indo-European with non-Indo-European elements, the Hittites make an interesting, but not easy subject for study. Then there is the fact that scholars have not been able to make sense of every text that was found. Several texts are found in different versions, even in different languages. Since they are found on stone tablets which have been damaged in the course of time, many texts display greater or smaller lancunas. The sort of texts that are found is of a great variety. This varries from letters of one king to another, laws, religious texts with ceremonies, stories, a few myths have been left and there are many magical inscriptions found. The latter the author shoves under the label “primitive”, a term that the author uses now and then for the “lower” elements within the “high” society. All in all this little book (just over 200 pages Penguin format) is a nice introduction to an interesting piece of history. I am personally not immensely interested in the purely historical part of what king followed who and when some tribe moved to another place, but the (short) part about religion and the quotes from the texts that are left are interesting.
1952 (1990 revised reprint) Penguin Books, isbn 0140126015

Hittite Myths * Harry A. Hoffner jr. (1998)

In the last Heidnisches Jahrbuch I read about the Hittites. The article caught my attention because we are supposedly speaking about an Indo-European near-Eastern peoples of which texts remain older than the Vedas, usually regarded the oldest Indo-European texts. In fact the ages of both writings are about the same, from 1500 BCE as oldest text going well further towards the beginning of the era. The Hittite myths are closely akin to the more famous Sumerian myths of the same area and Sumerian Gods and Goddesses are mentioned frequently. There are said to be many texts that survived, yet Hoffner made a book of only about 90 pages with myths. The texts are left on stone tablets in different languages. The tablets are often heavily damaged, so the translations contain a lot of gaps, some parts are even unreadable. What is left are enjoyable myths about Gods and Goddesses, about Gods and men and here and there about some hero. There are storm gods, sky gods and earth gods, some have names, some do not. The myths go from very simple to very elaborate and also the lengths differ greatly. Hoffner sometimes give different versions of the same myth or uses different versions to come to a better result. The myths are nice to read. They are sometimes indeed Indo-European, but overall remind me more of the Sumerian kind of mythology. I have also two books about the Hittites which I will review when I finished them. I usually prefer to read the texts themselves, so I started with this little book. In the same series there are other kinds of Hittite texts available.

[The Storm God of the Sky set out towards the steppe], the meadow, [and the moor(?). He carried off plenty, prosperity, and abundance. The Storm God departed], and barley [and wheat] no longer [ripened. Cattle, sheep], and hmand did not [become pregnant]. And those wo [were pregnant did not give birth] from that time.

1998 (2nd edition, the first edition is of 1990) society of biblical literature, isbn 0788504886

Koning Artur In De Nederlanden * J.D. Janssens (1985)

Some time ago I was rereading Koenraad Logghe’s “De Graal“, a book about the Arthurian legends that thrives heavily on the texts in the Dutch language and has a lot of references to the “Shah Nameh”, the Persian “Book Of The Kings”. While visiting a local second hand bookshop that I rarely visit these days, my eye fell on a shelf where the Shah Nameh stood right next to a little book with fragments of Dutch Arthurian texts. Coincidence? I have not yet finished the Shah Nameh, but Janssens booklet with fragments is only 200 pages so that went a lot quicker. Janssens wanted to make a book to bring the less known, but of the same age (or even older) as the famous French texts, to a larger, Dutch audience. He choose fragments of Perchevael, Ferguut, Walewein ende Key and Graalqueeste. There is a lengthy interpretative introduction which is very interesting and thought-provoking. The fragments themself are in the original language (Middle Dutch), but have ‘normalised writing’. Notes at the bottom of the pages explain uncommon words and structures. It appears that literary scholars are pleased with the fragments, personally I think it are not the most interesting passages that Janssens choose. Besides, the authors of the texts used many lines to describe the entering of a castle or whatever, the intermediating pieces in which Janssens summerises the events are more enjoyable in my opinion. It was nice to read these Dutch texts in the original language. I find this old Dutch not too hard to read, so it went pretty quickly. A nice little booklet that you will have to find second hand. It is well available from about € 10,-.
1985, uitgeverij HES

The War Of The Gods * Jarich Oosten (1985)

The War Of The GodsNot a new subject, comparitive mythology, but a new approach; to me of course. Contrary to the Dumézilian approach, Oosten uses the cultural anthropological angle to look at things. However he refers to Dumézil quite a bit, he sees problems with the tripartite structure (see here). Whereas Dumézil compares different myths and characters and structures therein by comparing the functions of for example Gods, Oosten uses “the social code” (cf. the subtitle of this book “the social code in Indo-European mythology”). This means that not the function of a God is of interest, but his/her relation to other Gods and entities. “The structure of the myths was determined by the relationship between different kin-groups (paternal relatives, maternal relatives, affines.” (p.165) In this manner the following kind of structure is identified by Oosten: “Wife-takers associated with warfare received women from wife-givers associated with religion and wealth.” (p. 165) Or a longer quote:

The ancient myths reveal the structure of a pantheon that did not represent a state, or a kingdom, but a family, ruled by a father-god. Relations between different groups of gods were based on kinship.

However I fail to see the significance of these relations and the conclusions are often comparable ‘that other system’, it is sometimes refreshing to see that all Aesir stem from giants (which in this idea are the original Gods), who fought against and then merged with the Vanir. The treaty between the Aesir and the Vanir resulted in mead and Oosten has identified “the cycle of the mead” in all Indo-European mythologies.
It is not that Oosten has come to new conclusions to me, but the way he builds towards his conclusions is both interesting and sometimes hard to follow. I have the idea that he jumps conclusions quite frequently (two comparable situations are generalised) and with the myths I am most familiar with, he is rather sloppy in the retelling of them. Also, however much Oosten opposes the structure of Dumézil, the only thing that he presents himself is a way to dissect myths, while the theory of Dumézil also has practical applications. Oosten’s approach is focused on the texts, while Dumézil can be applied to the actual religion.
All things considered, I find this little book (150 pages) well worth reading, since it forced me to look at things slightly differently, but for me as a practitioner, this is mostly an intellectual game.
1985 Routledge Kegan Paul, isbn 071020289X

The Universal Myths * Alexander Eliot (1976 myths / 1990 meridian * isbn 0452010276)

There were mainly two reasons for me to buy this book, first “with contributions by Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade” and the price of $ 11,70. The Universal Myths is a book with mythology of all over the world and given by theme. This brings magnificent similarities between myths as far apart as far Eastern with “Amerindian” or Babylonian with Northern. Very nice indeed! What is less nice, is that you get but one page (or even less) of a myth so in the end the curtain-fire of shallow information becomes a bit tiring. The promised: “its detail is overwhelming” of the quote on the cover is not made true in my opinion. More even, if regards the mythology that I know best, being the Northern European, I even have to conclude that the writer mixes things up, gives half stories and adds elements that spring from his own imagination. This definately makes a warning about the other stories, so I would say “be a bit carefull”. Also I fail to find the contributions of Campbell and Eliade, I only see three Eliade quotes.The book is very nice because it easily compares a wide variety of myths, but I would use it only as a starting point, to get some hints to inspire further information. <14/5/07><2>