John Lindow, Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology. Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 262. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1997. 210 pp.
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John Lindow’s work represents old Norse mythology and its subject is one of considerable topical interest. There has been a great upsurge of mythology research in Europe since the 1980s, as reflected in the growing volume of studies into ancient mythology. The interest in classical texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans is, in Europe, partly due to the need to strengthen the common cultural capital in the formation of the European Union. On the other hand, the rise of myth studies ties in with a wider shift of research interests. New approaches and methods are opening up new possibilities in examining pre-Christian cultures. Research into pre-Christian Norse religion has attracted scholars in linguistics, archaeology, written and oral tradition. Few broad basic treatises on Scandinavian mythology have, however, been produced. In this respect Lindow’s exhaustive treatment of Baldr is welcome.
The myth tradition surrounding Baldr has been fascinating scholars ever since last century. The interpretations reflect the theories on myth prevailing at the time. For example, the popular theory of the link between the Baldr myths and growth-promoting rites is in line with the approach of the myth-rite school. John Lindow is well aware of different interpretive fashions and, in the first chapter of his work, draws a clear picture of the ideas which belong to the past and which, on the other hand, could give some ground for further studies. His own treatise on mythology is based on the same kind of clear and balanced reasoning as his treatise on the former research. Lindow does not attempt to trace any assumed latent meanings in Baldr myths, but instead addresses the texts with a respect for their expression: his interest is in the myth “in forms in which we have it and the meaning it might have borne for those who knew it in those forms” (28). He discusses the nature of sources, their genre, time and context of writing, and the relationship with possible oral predecessors, in a convincing way. The fragments of original texts presented with translations are helpful for the reader, and in addition to the rich analysis of names and concepts give a firm basis for the interpretations of textual meanings.
The basic idea of the work is the role of ancient Scandinavian mythology as a means of establishing and maintaining hierarchical social relations. The absence of a central power in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the constant conflicts and the central part played by revenge as a cultural theme are characteristic features of the narrative world of the historical sagas. Lindow sees the fate of Baldr as representing the same thinking at the level of myths. He emphasises the focal role of kinship in the organization of ancient Scandinavian society. The demise of Baldr and the ensuing eschatological events are a consequence of the fratricide that manifested the constant conflict between the aesir and jotnar. Lindow states that Scandinavian “self-help societies” used various mechanisms in place of central authority in resolving disputes. Feud, which is most clearly manifested in the Baldr story, was one of them (16-17). The contents of the book are organized according to this basic idea. In addition to the introductory chapter dealing with basic problems of mythology and the problem of Baldr and its earlier solutions, the chapters examine the death and funeral of Baldr, the attempts to retrieve him and the vengeance of his death. The last chapter, “Baldr and Hodr: Ragnarok and Reconciliation”, puts the myth of Baldr in a larger cosmological setting: after the destruction of the world in the fight of the gods, a new, better world will emerge with Baldr. The elements of the Baldr story, Conflict, Climax, Revenge and Reconciliation belong – according to Lindow – to the cultural system of managing disputes, feud, and organize the narrative world of sagas and myths, as well.
John Lindow’s interpretations are strongly supported by his linguistic competence and exceptionally thorough familiarity with research into Scandinavian mythology; this is hardly surprising in view of the fact that he is the author of an exhaustive bibliography on the subject. He is also well acquainted with research into Kalevala mythology, even though this is less familiar to him than the literature and research on Germanic mythology. The reader of the work on the fate of Baldr is struck by the points which the Scandinavian and the Finnish-Karelian tradition have in common – points that may previously have been overlooked. These features include a description of the other world, Hel, the land of the dead, and the areas of jotnar, characteristic features of deities and heroes as well as metaphoric expressions. It may be remembered that Kaarle Krohn already found parallel features in the traditions of Baldr and of Lemminkäinen in the Kalevalaic poetry. Lindow’s critique of early interpretations of the Baldr myth can be extended to cover the similar interpretations of the Lemminkäinen story.
The work by John Lindow is a comprehensive account of the myth material on the subject of Baldr. It possibly lacks the element of fancy characteristic of some myth research, but the precision, clarity and expertise of the text is all the more convincing. Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology carries the study of Scandinavian mythology a great leap forwards. It is fascinating reading for researchers in comparative religion, folkloristics, literature, and anyone else interested in the world of myths.
University of Helsinki
FF Network No. 15
(April 1998): 21-22