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Götter und Kulte der Germanen * Rudolf Simek (Beck 2004 * ISBN: 3406508359)

The second book in the “Wissen” series of Beck publishers from Germany that I review. The title (“Gods and Cults of the Germans”) promises a bit more than the book makes true. Just like Die Germanen this is not a simple chronological overview of the subject. Still, this little book lives up to my expectations more than the other mentioned book. Simek wrote a nice little work that gives a very good overview of the world and thought of the ancient Germans. Of course there are many books with many pictures who try the same, but instead of mixing the Germans with Northern tribes and getting the information from the Medieval Eddas and Medieval churchfathers, Simek mostly uses archeology as basis and fundatings of his information.
The book opens with offerings of German cults that may or may not have been religious acts. Offerings like that of the conquered enemies weapons (which the Germans could have used in their metal-poor areas) that are dumped in swamps. Also Simek writes about ritual animal sacrifice, human sacrifice and a bit about burials, because it is hard to tell such things apart sometimes. Many recent excavations are refered to which brings the book truely into our own time and age, because many things have been discovered in the last years.
The second chapter is about “cult buildings”, but also here it is hard to say what was the exact use. It is often said that the Germans have no temples, but still they are refered to often in the writings that we have. Large buildings for collective feasting sure have excisted which are described here.
Chapter three is about the gods of the ancient Germans and the depictions of them in wooden human-formed figures and some kind of totem-poles like form. The names do not sound familiar anymore!
The subject of gods is continued, but this time the Merowinger and Viking time is the subject. Simek shows himself to be very critical against current ideas about these gods, mythology and everything we think to know about them and the origins. The writer does not blindly follow the writer of the prose-Edda (the most important source for German and Viking mythology) who he often accuses of having made things up and of putting a thick Christian sauce over it all. Also assumptions made by modern ‘Germanists’ on information of Snorri and Medieval Christian describers of the German and Viking tribes are frequently put in doubt. Simek primery used the old Skald songs on which for example Sturluson based himself and for example found no clear reference to the race of the Vaenir. Also the oldest known inscription about the origin of the runes says that not Odin, but Odin in collaboration with other gods has invented them. Also Simek shows doubts about the German trinity of Odin, Villi, Vé, which he thinks to be a heavily Christian invention/interpretation of Sturluson.
This line continues with the chapter about giants, dwarves and “Alben” (a kind of elves).
Then follows a nice chapter about magic. Here Simek disagrees with scholars who think that the runes have been of only practical use and that the magical attributions to them have been added much later. Simek gives the runes first a magical and then a practical use. Also he speaks about Seidr, witches, some folklore and the like.
The last chapter is very interesting. The largest part is about death and ‘death habbits’. There were different kinds of burials and rituals that belonged to them. Also Simek shortly speaks about ‘undead’ and the ’empire of hell’. There have been different views on life after death and our idea of Valhalla is very coloured. Thus Simek ends with his critical and interesting book. <5/7/04>

Die Germanen * Herwig Wolfram (Beck 2005 * isbn 3406449042)

The German publisher Beck has a long series of small books under the name “Wissen” which means “knowing” or “knowledge”. Recently I bought three of these books, this one, one about Germanic Gods and Cults and one about the Celts. The last two I have yet to read. The books appealed to me when I saw a few of them in a German bookshop. They are small, apparently informative and most importantly, they have a good index so they function well as reference books.

This little book (12×20 cm or so and 125 pages) is written by a professor in medieval history. I can read German quite well, but this Wolfram writes a bit too much like a professor to me sometimes. Also he obviously knows so much that he sometimes forget that his readers do not have all backgroundknowledge (at present). This makes the book a little more difficult than I expected. Also I don’t really see the structure in the book. The writer starts with a subject which developes to something else and later picks up the original subject again.

The writer with telling what made Germans German, because actually this term refers to a wide variety of clans, ‘sibbe’s’ (families so to say), peoples, etc. and not even on a small geographically-indicatable part of the world. Language proves to be the main ground for naming a people German and telling the Germans from eachother. Then Wolfram continues with telling what the ancient Germans looked like and how they lived and the results of this kind of society. The history of ‘the Germans’ is spread all throughout the book. The first Germans (“Kimbern” and “Teutonen”) would have lived around the Mediteranean Sea. Then a very long part is about the Romans and the Germans. Of course most information we have comes from the Romans, but this period is German history is a bit too much highlighted in my opinion.

In part II Wolfram speaks about the origin of the Germans, but this is not really an historical overview that will easily tell you the history of the different tribes and how them grew towards or opposital to eachother. Part III and IV is better in this. This part speaks about how the Germans became one people and obtained a feeling of nationality over ‘own people first’ and then what happens to different German folks halfway the first millenium.

All in all a nice book, but so many names pass that I still don’t know for sure what are (pre)German folks, what enemies or allies and the (of course undocumented) early history remains dark. But, for the better-known tribes such as the East- and Westgoths, the Vandals, the “Burgunder”, the Langobards, the Franks and the Anglosaxons I roughly have what I needed.

Norse Myths * Raymond Ian Page (University of Texas 1991 * isbn 0292755465)

This book comes in a series about the mythology of mankind. The books are about A4-size, have many images and elementary information about how texts came to us, information about the main gods, heroes, stories, etc. When other books in these series (about Celtic, Persian and Mesopatamic mythology) are good and certainly suggested, I find this book by Page too shallow and not too well-written.

Tussen Wodan En Widar * Alice Woutersen-Van Weerden (Christofoor 1997 * isbn 9060384148)

Many people will think me crazy, but I highly enjoyed reading this book. The title suggests that it is about Northern mythology (it means “between Wodan and Widar”) which is true, but also it isn’t. This happens to be an Antroposophical book. Antroposophy always had its interest in the traditions of our ancestors. It is not for nothing that the Antroposophical medicine brands are called “Wala” and “Weleda”. Also the ‘inventor’ of Antroposophy Rudolf Steiner (for more info go to the ‘seekers dept.’) frequently spoke about Northern mythology. The myths of the North are even taught on Waldorf schools today. Still this book may be a little unexpected, because it pretents to explain the Northern religion in Antroposophical terms, which naturally leads to very unorthodox explanations.

As a good book about Norse mythology ought to, the writer speaks about creation, the first giants and several of the Aesir, Vanas, giants, dwarves, etc. The meaning of the book is totally opposital from those of the other books about this subject that I reviewed. In the case of creation, the Norse version is laid alongside the way Steiner saw creation with his clairvoyant investigations. Herewith the metaphores of the myths get another depth. Later with the evolution of mankind and the roles of the different Norse gods many people not familiar with or opposed to the Antroposophical worldview will drop out. Personally I have no problems with this Antroposophical worldview. As a matter of fact, it were Steiner’s books that put me on my ‘spiritual path’ many years before I started to study the traditional religion. Laying the Antroposophical ideas next to the metaphores of the Norse mythologies definately made the last more vivid to me. A big point for comment is that Woutersen uses the her Antroposophical worldview as starting point and literally rams the Northern stories therein. Often her conclusions are very prepossessed or fabricated, but the writer does not shy to leave answers or possibilities open when she isn’t convinced about certain things herself. Another point of comment is that Woutersen pays but little respect to the order of things in the Eddas and other sagas and makes strange jumps throughout the texts to pick the best comparison for her ideas.

There are also good points about this book though. Woutersen used a Dutch scholar who can read old Icelandic and not blindly sailed on the existing translations of the Eddas. Woutersen often opens a subject with a compilation of texts about a certain subject. Herefor she combines different translation of (for example) the Eddas like that of De Vries or Otten (reviewed elsewhere), but also German translations or the translation of ‘her’ Icelandic scholar. Then the metaphores, images, etc. are explained in an Antroposophical way. Like I said, the result is mostly extremely unorthodox. I often disagree with the writer or think that her conclusions are premature, but the great thing about this book is exactly that the unorthodox explanation sheds a totally different light on stories that I keep reading (about). Even better: Woutersen forces me to think my own explanations of these stories over again which is of course the best thing that can happen to get a better understanding.

All in all “Tussen Wodan And Widar” gives the creation and evolution of mankind in images of the Norse myths, but in line with the Antroposophical worldview. You will -for example- read about Mimir and the development of memory, Odin and the development of speech, Thor and the development of the individuality, the meaning of Balder’s death and Ragnarökk and eventually the (not too convincing) part Vidar/Widar (the son of Odin/Wodan who avenges his death during Ragnarökk) as the ‘new Christ’ (as a matter of speaking). According to this book the pre-Christian belief was a state in the evolution of mankind and Odin was the ‘folk-mind’ of the Northern tribes (and an archangel). Gautama Siddarta and Christ were clearly indicationable peaks where new stages in this evolution where started. In such a matter Woutersen leads you towards the time of Widar (which she discerns from “Vidar”, the son of Odin).

Unorthodox, strange maybe, but interesting and definately giving you another view on certain things than you are used. Maybe this ‘culture shock’ with cause a total re-evaluation of your own implementation of our ancestral religion which can never be a bad thing. You may come out stronger in your convictions and/or weak spots will become more solid. At the end there is some information about the Antroposophical worldview for people who are not familiar with it.

The Masks Of Odin * Elsa-Brita Titchenell (Theosophical University Press 1986 * isbn 0911500731)

However this book is 20 years old, the Dutch translation just saw the light of day. It seems that also the Dutch section of the Theosophical Society realised that people also want to learn about their own past. This book can be regarded as the Theosophical answer to the Antroposophical book Tussen Wodan en Widar (‘between Wodan and Widar’ reviewed elsewhere). Titchenell uses the first half of the book to give Theosophical explanations of Norse concepts. These ideas are often far-fetched and very suggestive. Often she doesn’t name her sources which makes it hard to look things back. The first half of the book is by far not as interesting as the Antroposophical book that has a similar idea.
The second half of the book consists of translations of texts, mostly from the Elder Edda (that the writer still ascribes to Saemund). However she claims that she used an Icelandic original and an old Swedish tranlation, the titles of many texts differ and there are a few other discripancies. “-vida” often becomes “-kvädet”, such as in “Hymiskvädet” for “Hymiskmál”. In the case of “Baldrs Draumer” the title is totally different and somehow became “Vägtamskvädet” and “Rigsthula”, “Kvidet om Rig”. Then we have one text that I only know from this book. “Odens Korpsgalder” is a part of the Edda according to Titchenell, but mostly left out because it is too hard to explain. Further I noticed that the “Svipdagsmál” is in only one of the three Elder Edda translations that I have, strange! What is also strange that the writer writes the names differently. What is usually an “i” in the last accent, becomes an “e”, so “Hymir” becomes “Hymer”, “Ymir”, “Ymer”, etc.

Titchenell has a few weird ideas. “Lorride” is Thor’s electrical counterpart; “Trudgälmer” is the first sound and “Cosmic Thor”; Thor’s sons are “energy” (Modi) and “power” (Magni).
Other odd things. Vidar (one of Odin’s sons) will avenge his father during Ragnarök with Mjölnir! A few verses before the writer rightly translates that Thor’s hammer will be possessed by the two sons that I just named. “Hjkidskáf” is Odin’s (and Frigg’s) throne and the name is usually translated as ‘high throne’, Titchenell makes ‘shelf of compassion’ of it (in the English text in a note, in the translation in the text!). More interesting are the six constellations that the writer filters out of the “Hymskvädet” in with Thor fishes up the Midgardsomr.

All this make the book the book twofold. Sometimes the ideas are a bit too outrageous, but to have another translation of the texts gives a good way to compare them and the writers explanations are sometimes very interesting. I would say that this book is an alright read if you have some background in the subject. You will get a few unorthodox ideas which will force you to think about certain ideas that you might have had. If you are new to the Norse mythology, I suggest that you better first read a few other books about it. Just have a look in my book reviews section.

The English and German (PDF) versions can be found online by the way.

Van Ægir Tot Ymir * Paula Vermeyden & Arend Quak (2000)

This Dutch book with the subtitle “characters and themes from the Germanic and Nordic mythology” is a must-have for anyone interested in that subject and able to read Dutch. For some reason it took quite a while before I learned of the existence of this book, but I am more than happy to have it. The title already suggests that this is a reference-book or even a dictionary/encyclopedia. Indeed, this is exactly what it is! In alphabetical order no less than 77 subjects are written about. Some take several pages, others just half a column, but always the information is very objective and complete (many sources are used and given) and what is particularly nice, the writers have searched for all images (mostly named, not printed though) of a certain theme, other kinds of art, music, etc. which are always noted in the last paragraph of one article. Every article closes with references. “From Ægir To Ymir” is ultimately and the ultimate reference book on the subject!
Of course the book is not all perfect. Every subject is spoken about separately, so there is much double information. When you just use this book for reference purposes, this doesn’t matter. What matters more, is that there are some obvious and silly mistakes and on at least one occasion the book contradicts itself. In the article about giants (p. 158-162) contains most of mistakes. First, Sleipnir is mentioned as one of the giants that Thor has slain, but of course Sleipnir is not a giant, but Odin’s horse. Also the article says that the cow Audhumla licks Buri from a block of ice. This is not correct and on page 219 (under “Ymir”) it says correctly that Audhumla licks Buri from a block of salt. Whereas the book is mostly quite complete (as far as I can judge of course), the article about the giants completely ignores the (possible) naturalistic explanation of the giants (that they represent forces of nature). One last, and minor point is that page 162 (under “Rind”) says “The Codex Regius of the Song-Edda”. This Edda is usually called the ‘poetic Edda’, but that is just a matter of preference, but the Codex Regius contains the poetic Edda and this sentence makes it seem as if it is the other way around.
But, inspite of these minor points, this book belongs on the bookshelf of any ‘pagan’ or person interested being able to read Dutch. A short article with references and information from almost any corner thinkable which will highly simplify your own seeking efforts. The book, even when only 255 pages thick, contains tons of valuable information, is very well readable, has some hard-to-get images and references to books and works of art I had never heard off!
uitgeverij sun 2000, isbn 906168661X

De Godsdienst Der Germanen * R.L.M. Derolez (JJ Romen en Zonen 1959)

After reading the massive Altgermanische by Meyer I didn’t really know if a similar, but much thinner, Dutch book would bring anything new. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Derolez seems to have made a readable summery of the different Altgermanisches that had appeared in his time. He of course read the more modern books such as that of Jan de Vries. Also he is very familiar with (also from then of course) more modern investigations in comperative religion like those of Dumezil. Derolez did a fine job and however his book has by far not as many pages and the Altgermanische that I have, it seems that most information and theories are dealt with. Also Derolez proves himself critical towards the authorities that most people base themselves on in that (and this!) time and shows their flaws and insecurities, but highlights the goods points. This makes this book not only interesting from informational viewpoint, but also for those who want to study the available information critically. Of course -again- the book is 45 years old.

Midzomer In Europa * Aat van Gilst (2006 aspekt * isbn 9059114736)

Van Gilst earlier wrote another book that is reviewed in these pages called De Eeuwige Ordening (‘the eternal order’). His new book is called Midzomer In Europa, het feest van de zomerzonnewende (‘midsummer in Europe, the feast of the summer solstice’). I find De Eeuwige Ordening a nice book. Van Gilst sometimes holds theories different from my own, but his first book is very readable, highly informative and a classic about the prechristian faith in the Dutch language. Midzomer In Europa is thinner (about 200 pages) and entirely dedicated to customs around Midsummer, or the summer solstice. The book mostly consists of massive lists (but then put behind eachother like plain text) of customs and habbits surrounding the longest day in Europe. Herbs, dances, songs, rituals, fires, superstitions, you name it, Van Gilst tracked it down and noted it down. I have the impression that the writer is pretty exhaustive, even my tiny birthvillage is mentioned. The index isn’t specified enough, so you will have a hard to finding something back. Also the book doesn’t read too well since it is often merely an enumeration of facts, dates and customs. A great book if you are interested in the folklore around Midsummer, but not a book to just read for background information.

De Eeuwige Ordening * Aat van Gilst (Aspekt 2004 * isbn 9059113985)

After having read several standard works about Northern religion and mythology in German of 25 to 125 years old, there is finally a brandnew book and in Dutch too. With its 384 pages, it is much thinner than for example the Altgermanische Religionsgeschichtes that I have. Still this new book is big enough to be a reference work. Older books about the subject usually have a part with the history of mythology and the investigation of it, a part with information about spirits, giants, dwarves, etc. and the different gods and goddesses and a part with the (religious) life of the Norsemen. Van Gilst -however- starts with a part about the stone-, bronze and iron-ages to give you an idea of the earlier history. The writer appears to me of a follower of the school of Dumezil, meaning that the Northern tradition is placed in a larger Indo-European context and that parallels are sought with the religion and mythologies of other traditions. Others -however- see in Van Gilst more of a “naturalist” deminicing the gods to natural events or divined human beings. Therefor you will sometimes find other ideas or opinions than in other books or the conclusions of the writer differ from you own. This doesn’t matter, but it may be helpfull to know this in advance. In general I am delighted by this book, the fact that there is finally a recent one about the subject and the fact that it is written in Dutch. The writing is sometimes a bit sloppy, but this doesn’t effect the contence. So, all who can read Dutch are advised to get a copy of “The Eternal Order”.

Extra note, I know people very well informed in the Germanic religion who are not at all happy about this book. I like it myself, but just keep this in the back of your head.