Sources of Information
for the Study of Germanic Religion
By Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz Copyright © by A. Æ. Hunt-Anschütz 2000
A lot of people who are new to researching the ancient heathen religion are overwhelmed by the number of different conflicting "facts" they come across in their reading. One key to reducing this confusion is an understanding of the different types of source material and its relative worth. In this short article I consider the kinds of books available which are of interest to heathens and discuss their merits and shortcomings.
Original sources: writings from medieval or ancient times. These include (but are not limited to) the Poetic Edda, Snorri's Prose Edda, The Icelandic Sagas, Saxo's History of the Danes, Beowulf, Bede's various writings, Tacitus, and a host of other authors who give us little snippets about Germanic religion in the midst of writings concerned with other topics. Original sources also include things like the text of rune carvings and altar stones. We can't take every statement made in an original source at face value. Like modern authors, medieval and classical writers had their own agendas and prejudices. But where several original sources agree on a historical fact, we can consider it to be reliable in the absence of conflicting evidence.
Scholarly sources: these are writings by academics which attempt to interpret the original sources. There are two kinds of scholarly sources which often overlap. There are those intended for an academic audience with some specific knowledge of the subject matter. Bauschatz The Well and the Tree falls into this category as does Richard North's Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Then there are those intended for a wider audience with a more general education such as most of Hilda Ellis Davidson's books or Foote and Wilson's The Viking Achievement. Scholarly authors are subject to criticism by their academic peers and thus are motivated to thoroughly research their topics and present only up-to-date and accurate information.
However, there are two things we must keep in mind in considering scholarly sources: 1) Theories are not facts, 2) Knowledge is not static. Scholarly books on ancient Germanic religion and culture propose theories and attempt to back them up with arguments based on evidence from the original written sources, from archaeology, and from comparison with other religions and cultures. There are different kinds of evidence within each category to pick and chose from, and more than one way to interpret that evidence. Therefore, alternate theories can exist simultaneously. Theories are nothing more than working models. Academic research works by continually bringing in new evidence to challenge existing theories and by proposing new ones. This brings us to point 2). A theory that was widely accepted in academia thirty years ago may have been totally abandoned since that time due to new evidence and/or new ways of interpreting the old evidence. Thus, the most valuable scholarly sources tend to be those which have been published most recently.
Popular mythology books: these are retellings of stories from the original sources. They are intended primarily as entertainment and aimed at a general audience. A prime example is H.A. Guerber's Myths of the Norsemen. Most coffee-table Norse mythology books with lots of pretty color illustrations also fall into this category. The authors of such books feel free to embellish or simplify the mythology in various ways to make it more appealing to modern sensibilities. Thus, these books contain many "facts" which are entirely the product of the author's imagination. And since most authors of popular mythology books take their information from other popular mythology books, rather than going back to the original sources, a "fact" made up by one author can end up in several books. Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths is an exception in that the author did research the original sources and his retellings remain true to the spirit of the myths. But even Crossley-Holland embellished the stories for entertainment purposes, and therefore his book is no substitute for the Eddas.
Pagan publications: these are books aimed at a Neo-Pagan/New Age audience. They are generally found in the "occult" or "mind-body- spirit" sections of bookstores rather than the history or religion sections. Books which fall into this category range from those which are complete rubbish to those which are based on reasonably good research. Most fall somewhere in between. Don't be fooled into thinking a pagan publication is accurate just because it contains a long list of references! Check the references to see how reliable they are. Most of the authors of pagan publications get their information from other pagan publications, popular mythology books, or outdated scholarly works which are no longer taken seriously by modern academics. Pagan publications are almost exclusively intended for "beginners" and thus even the most well researched must simplify complex material to the point where theories or personal interpretations get presented as facts. The publishers of popular pagan books are interested in selling as many copies as possible, and as a result accuracy is often sacrificed in favour of popular appeal. Because Wiccans form the largest buying audience for pagan publications, those books on Germanic religion most likely to get published and stay in print tend to be those which distort the facts in order to appeal to the Wiccan world-view.
The non-reliable sources have their uses. They get people interested in Germanic mythology and may motivate them to want to learn more. However, they also cause a great deal of confusion. People who start doing serious research into ancient heathen religion often need to unlearn many "facts" perpetuated in the popular non-reliable sources. This can put people in the very uncomfortable situation of having to re- evaluate everything they thought they knew on the topic. To have the most accurate and up-to-date understanding of ancient heathenry, you must be willing to read widely, keep an open mind, question everything you read, and, most importantly, to change your views when you come across new and conflicting evidence.
People new to heathen internet communities are often surprised when they post what they thought to be a "well known fact" to a mailing list (or news group or bulletin board) and are swamped with responses asking "what is your evidence for that?" Some even interpret this sort of questioning as a personal attack (although this is rarely the intent of the questioners). Those who stick around on the same list long enough may come to understand that the "nitpickers" are engaging in a learning process which involves constantly updating their own views on things in the face of new evidence which contradicts what they previously believed. In order to do this, they need to know whether contradictory evidence someone else presents is reliable (based on the latest scholarly interpretation of original sources). If it is not reliable, they can ignore it and continue to hold their previous theories. But if it is reliable, and challenges those theories, they will begin to question our own views and will do further research to determine whether they should update them. Those who are engaged in this kind of learning process absolutely encourage others to challenge their sources and evidence. They enjoy a good debate. If a theory they've held has been superseded by a new and better theory, they want to know about it. It's through these lively arguments over evidence and source material that mailing-list discussions have come to play a valuable role in collectively reconstructing the ancient Germanic religion.