Ismantorp on Öland - Wikipedia

Old Norse Cosmology

NEW BOOK: Around AD 550 settlement, landscape and not least cosmology in Northern Europe underwent radical changes

It is an established fact among Scandinavian Archaeologists that a profound change in the landscapes, social organizations and aesthetic and visual identity of the Northern Europeans took place around the middle of the first millennium AD. In a new book this list is supplemented by a fascinating study of the changes in the cosmologies, which accompanied these new socio-cultural forms.

With all such shifts exact dates cannot be provided. Such changes will always be fluid and tentative in their character. In the end, however, a new and radically different world came into being characterised by a more marked social differentiation, new formations of central elites, changed burial customs (tumuli), a new aesthetic style – animal art – and not least a new cosmology with a new or at least transformed pagan pantheon, from which the elite was said to trace its divine origin.

Before, the Scandinavian world was literally best characterised as a golden age witnessed by numerous golden treasures found as votive offerings, weapon deposits and distinct cosmological landscapes featuring regional meeting places, where ritual and sacrificial warfare was staged and pro to-markets took place. The co-existing aesthetic style was heavily inspired by Roman imports and inspiration.

In a new and very interesting book by the archaeologist Anders Andrén, we are treated to a careful and reflective overview of part of this shift, the complex changes in the cosmology or world-view, which took place at the end of the migration period in Scandinavia as witnessed by (primarily Swedish) archaeology.

Early Picture Stone from Havor Hablingbo parish on Gotland, Sweden
Picture Stone from Havor Hablingbo parish on Gotland, Sweden, showing the sun whirling through heaven

In the introduction he presents us with a short but nevertheless precise rendering of the old Norse cosmology as it is witnessed by the mythological texts handed down to us in the Medieval Icelandic literature. This leads up to three specific archaeological studies, where Anders Andrén traces a series of shifts in some of the mythological memes figuring in this Old Norse Literature – the tree of life, the landscape around it and the sun above.

In these three chapters he outlines how the Scandinavians – as witnessed by the archaeology – originally saw their world: as a world centred on a life tree spatially surrounded by nine worlds and taking nourish from the sun brought to us everyday by horses and ships. This is demonstrated by careful archaeological shifting of such diverse phenomena and artefacts as tricorne “tree settings”, Scandinavian ringforts and the changing character of the famous Gotlandic picture stones. In between other types of material culture like the bracteates are discussed.

In a long time-perspective it is possible to show that some roots to and elements of this overarching cosmology can be found at least a millennium back.

The intriguing fact is though, that this overall cosmology  rather suddenly seemed to shift around 400 – 550 (according to Swedish archaeologists from 500 – 550).

Picture Stone from Lillbjärs Stenkyrka Parish Gotland, Sweden
Picture Stone from Lillbjärs Stenkyrka Parish Gotland, Sweden AD 800 -1100

Explaining this has occupied archaeologists and historians for a very long time. One recent explanation brought forward has been of the deus-ex-machina kind. According to this, the changes were brought about by inspiration from the Huns, who are claimed to have conquered or at least introduced the Nordic People to shape-shifting, animal lore and a new aesthetic (the animal style). Another explanation proffered has been the devastating consequences in Northern Europe caused by the ‘Dust Veil’, a result of either a mega volcanic outburst or a cosmic collision with a meteor in the 530s, and followed by the Justinian plague (AD 541-42). According to archaeologists and climate historians this cosmic event created a period of three years when the sun was dramatically dimmed while winter and summer collapsed into each other. It is believed that this event caused the disappearance of the sun-oriented “old” cosmology and fostered the myths about the “Mighty Winter” – the fimbulvetr – leading up to Ragnarökr, a series of natural disasters ending in the total destruction of the known world and the rebirth of a new.

Disregarding the shrill overtones of the surrounding debates, these complementary sets of hypotheses are carefully outlined by Anders Andrén and discussed in a quiet and illuminating way.

To conclude: Anders Andrén presents us with a comprehensive presentation of the varied shifts from one worldview to another and places these in the context of the Old Norse religion as it has been presented to us in the Icelandic literary tradition; however, he does not promise nor present us with a comprehensive presentation of the two worlds as they can be detected materially and archaeologically outside the cosmological perspective.

As it is, this should in noway cause us to belittle the book. Quite the opposite: It is highly readable, well argued and respectful of the complexity of its chosen subject. As such it is sure to vet the appetite of readers. Perhaps we are allowed to hope for more…

The book has been underway for a long time. From 2000 – 2007 Anders Andrén co-directed an interdisciplinary project: Roads to Midgard – Old Norse Religion in Long-Term perspectives at Lund University. Although the project no longer formally exists, the book is published in the series of the project.

Karen Schousboe

tracing-old-norse-cosmology-coverTracing Old Norse Cosmology. The World tree, middle earth and the sun from archaeological perspective.
By Anders Andrén.
Series: Vägar till Midgård vol 16.
Nordic Academic Press 2014


Roads to Midgard. Old Norse religion in long-term perspective.