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Tree of Salvation – G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

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Tree of Salvation coverNearly twenty years in the making, G. Ronald Murphy’s Tree of Salvation is something of a labour of love, a meditation on the intersection between Germanic paganism and Christianity formed by the image of the World Tree Yggdrasil. It is this arboreal intersection that Murphy sees as the thematic building stone that facilitated the integration of Christian thought within the northern European worldview, thereby ensuring conversion. The delicateness of that language does betray Murphy’s approach here, and perhaps his status as a Jesuit priest, for he portrays this transition as largely idyllic, a meeting of the minds rather than a brutal theocratic conquest.

As is made clear by the subtitle Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North, Murphy argues for a happy syncretism of indigenous myth and the new myth of Christianity in which the World Tree was able to be seen as an analogue of the cross and for Woden to be recast as Christ. Murphy’s textual model for this is the recounting of the crucifixion found in The Heliand, in which the cross is described as a tree on a mountain, and Christ is both nailed to the tree and hanging from a rope. Assuming that this idea was something prevalent throughout northern Europe, Murphy turns to his idea of stave and round churches as a mythopoeic text, interpreting them as Christian buildings that were simultaneously representations of Yggdrasil, thereby welcoming in the faithful and reminding them of the World Tree’s sheltering role in myth. Murphy breaks down elements from the architecture that can be seen as analogues of Yggdrasil and its inhabitants: the serpentine gables on the Borgund stave church as the serpents found at the base of Yggdrasil, the tapered shape of the structure mirroring that of a tree, as well as its very materiality.

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A particularly rich area of imagery for Murphy are the portals and doors of churches, most notably the interwoven frame at Urnes church in Norway that is featured on the book’s cover, and the wrought iron decorations on the door of Roglösa church in Östergötland. The latter, which is usually assumed to show a hunting scene in its top panel and the Garden of Eden or the harrowing of Hell in its bottom, is instead appealingly interpreted as a depiction of Ragnarök, with Surtr appearing as a fiery figure with clawed feet, Þórr fighting the World Serpent, and Níðhöggr crawling towards a version of the World Tree.

There is something very appealing about this idea of pagan imagery being thoroughly suffused into Christian architecture, especially with the way in which Murphy presents it as being so complete and without question, rarely pausing to give caveats or alternative suggestions. His suppositions build one upon the other, sometimes feeling like evidence being made to fit a conclusion, rather than confirming a theory. This is particularly evident in the analysis of the Roglösa church door as a depiction of Ragnarök. While it’s an attractive proposition, Occam’s Razor would suggest that a Christian scene on a Christian door makes more sense, especially when the figure Murphy identifies as Þórr appears almost identical to depictions elsewhere of St. Michael battling the dragon, right down to the figure’s angelic wings. While acknowledging the similarity, Murphy shores up his interpretation by noting that the figure doesn’t carry a spear as St. Michael does in some depictions, seeing instead a small hammer; the tiny, questionable Mjölnir seemingly holding more weight than the wings and posture of an archangel.

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As something of a poetic approach to these themes, Murphy’s argument is an enthusiastic one, and one in which this passion may sometimes get the better of him, inserting intent where there may have been none. He presupposes, for example, that the idea of Yggdrasil and the interpretation he applies to it was universally held by all tiers of Germanic society, and that this degree of reverence made going to a Yggdrasil-shaped church a tick in the plus column for adopting Christianity. The apex of this is when he puts himself in twelfth century Danish round churches, imagining what a Christmas liturgy would have been like in Nykirke or how Mass would have been conducted in Østerlarskirke. These are fanciful recreations more akin to guided visualisations in which the architecture and the sermon intertwine, as does the imagery both pagan and Christian, with Murphy imagining Yggdrasil being at the forefront of everyone’s mind, acting as a portal that the faithful consciously pass through in order to receive the body and blood of Christ.

In the penultimate chapter Yggdrasil and the Sequence of the Runes in the Elder Fuhtark, Murphy changes direction somewhat and explores the idea that the runes themselves encode these Christo-Pagan themes of Yggdrasil, with the order of the futhark and the very names of the runes acting as an intentional cypher. To open, he discusses Walter W. Skeats unconvincing nineteenth century attempt to interpret the runes in such a manner, wherein he tried to squeeze the opening words of the Paternoster out of the runes fehu, uruz, thurisaz and ansuz (Father, ure, þhu in heofon). While acknowledging the limitations of Skeats’ approach (no equivalent of ‘h’ in the place it’s needed for heofon just for starters), Murphy has his own go at it, trying to do much the same in increasingly convoluted justifications that come across like the very worst of clutching-at-straws conspiracy literature or alternative archaeology cryptography. First he presents a problem where there isn’t necessarily one, asking why the futhark should follow a different order from the Greco-Roman alphabet. Having done so, he then attempts to answer it. In trying to establish a justification for the futhark’s order he turns to its first aett and manages to somehow get ‘and Christ are one,’ from the runes kaunaz, gyfu, wunjo, hagalaz and nauthiz. Where’s that Surprise Jesus™ in all this you ask? Well, gyfu and wunjo, which sit next to each other in the aett, kind of look like the chi ro symbol (that is, if you lay them one atop the other, move the wunjo up a bit and squint), and that’s obviously Christ, just sitting there clear as day, waving enthusiastically. However, the other runes in that aett aren’t also the separated components of any christogram, no, instead the hagalaz and nauthiz must combine to form the vowelless hn which could be, well of course, a Greek word, hen, the neuter form of eis meaning ‘one.’ Meanwhile, the solo ‘k’ of kaunaz “can only be,” as Murphy emphatically states it, an abbreviation for another Greek word, kai, meaning ‘and.’ Following on from these tortuous beginnings, Murphy somehow manages to convince himself that he can get ‘father’ too, though this isn’t by extrapolating abbreviations from a few individual runes or combining them into a monogram, no, the rules are once again different here, and now the first five runes of the futhark are run together to form fuþar, a word that doesn’t mean anything in any language but sure sounds kind of maybe like ‘father,’ if you squint. The whole segment now reads ‘The father and Christ are one.’ Neat, eh? Personally, I prefer to interpret the hn of hagalaz and nauthiz not as the Greek hen but as the Middle English hen (from the Old English henn, and then the Proto-Germanic *hanj?.), making the phrase now read ‘The father and Christ are chicken.

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Facetiousness aside, this is a remarkable exercise in intellectually dishonest apophenia, in which at least three different methods are used to try and wrangle a Greek phrase out of the letters of a Germanic script, where any method and its interpretation are accepted as long as it fits the pattern one is trying to establish. One tenuous connection is made, followed by another, cascading in a wave of cryptographic confirmation bias, all enthusiastically recounted by Murphy who details his giddy excitement following each ever more conclusive discovery. Small wonder that Murphy goes some way to redeeming Skeats at the end of this chapter, calling him “in a sense prescient.” Never once does Murphy countenance that it would be possible to take the letters of the futhark’s first aett and come up with a hundred different meanings if you could call upon any language, any collection of symbols and any non-existent homophones that kind of sound like the words you want them to sound like. Let’s see, ‘f’ and ‘u’ are used as an abbreviation of the profane directive “fuck you,” and þa sounds like ‘the,’ and well, ‘rk’ must be missing a vowel, shall we say ‘o,’ so that means fuþark actually means “Fuck you, the Rock.” Clearly the ancient runemaster was no fan of Dwayne Johnson.

As he does elsewhere, Murphy strays from methods scholarly and imagines what this specifically gendered creator of the order of the futhark might have intended to do with his tortuous ordering of the letters. Revealing the tangled web he has woven, Murphy makes his mythic futhark organiser someone with multiple motivations, being a pagan Swedish runemaster, a polyglot who was also handy with Greek, someone possessed of a favourable experience with and impression of Christianity who was trying to make the runes suitable to serve this new imported master instead of Woden. In so doing, he created a synthesis of the pagan god and Christ, making the latter the possessor of the runes with which his name was encoded. Yet, Murphy must find an excuse for the recherché and frankly indecipherable nature of this Christo-Pagan runemaster’s runic encoding, suggesting that he kept it secret for some reason, either for reasons magical, or as effectively an occult blind, or because perhaps not everyone, be they Christian or pagan, shared his views. Somehow, despite this caginess, this secret squirrel ordering of the futhark was still disseminated across Scandinavia, stretching credulity.

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Murphy’s final chapter explores the idea of the presence of Yggdrasil in the evergreen imagery of Christmas, trying to find a happy medium betwixt those who see the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol and those that see it as an entirely Christian invention. It’s not just the tree he deals with here, indeed there is considerably more time spent with other arboreal elements associated with Christmas, and he interprets the wreath, for example, as a solar wheel symbolling the cycle of the life that begins anew at Christmas. As elsewhere, what Murphy presents is often just speculation, poetically rendered so as the sound plausible, even convincing, but with little questioning of the mechanisms that would have allowed such themes to perpetuate down through the centuries. This is particularly evident when he addresses the comparatively late seventeenth century innovation of lights on the Christmas tree, interpreting them as stars and finding a tenuous precedent in Snorri’s thirteenth century description in Gylfaginning of the branches of Yggdrasil stretching far across the sky.

In sum, what Murphy presents here is an interesting series of intersecting ideas and themes, ones which if treated as unconscious simulacra add richness to interpretations of both Christian and pagan symbolism. Where it is less successful, though, is when it imagines intent and purpose, relying entirely on presuppositions and impressions in a tone that does come across more like a conspiracy theorist or alternative historian searching in Rosslyn Chapel for Templar traces or forgotten bloodlines.

Published by Oxford University Press

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Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga – David Clark

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Categories: germanic, Tags:

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga coverDavid Clark is a lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester and this book considers the intersection between gender and violence in both the Poetic Edda and heroic sagas. Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga is not a book made from whole cloth, and brings together writings that have previously appeared, in earlier versions, as articles in a variety of publications familiar to the field, including the Viking Society for Northern Research’s Saga-Book, the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Leeds Studies in English, Scandinavian Studies, and Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. That isn’t to say that the work as a whole feels piece meal, and each piece does build upon the other, beginning first with considerations of revenge in the stories of Guðrún and Helgi Hundingsbani. Clark prefaces these explorations in his introduction with a broad summary of Eddaic literature in general, and the areas to be discussed in particular, providing something of a necessary primer for the uninitiated.

Clark uses several theoretical models throughout his book, calling upon Pamela Robertson in the first chapter’s discussion of violence in the Guðrún poems Atlakviða, Atlamál, Guðrúnarhvöt and Hamðismál. Robertson’s consideration of camp, drag and gender parody, as it particularly applies to women who performatively portray other women, is applied to the depiction of Guðrún as someone who is atypically female in her actions. This has led to questions as to whether Guðrún is viewed sympathetically and heroically, or as an anti-feminist scapegoat, but Clark’s use of Robertson’s model allows her to be autonomous, possessed of her own destiny as someone who plays with perceptions of her sex in a female act of female impersonation.

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Clark employs a different theoretical model in the second chapter, invoking Eve Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire in its consideration of flyting in the Helgi poems: the first and second lays of Helgi Hundingsbani as well as the second lay of the other Helgi, Mr Hjörvarðsson. Sedgwick’s model of homosocial desire, in which a society is structured around male relationships that must then be normalised by intense homophobic discourse acting as a form of validation, finds an easy parallel in the Helgi poems. Most notable of these is the flyting exchanges between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, with each man belittling the other with ribald accusations of ergi behaviour, though notably casting themselves as the dominant partner in these zoomorphosised sexual interactions with each other: Sinfj?tli says that he and Guðmundr were the parents of wolves, though he alone was the father, while Guðmundr says that he had ridden Sinfj?tli hard for many miles, whilst the latter was a gold-bitted mare. The one element of Sedgwick’s theory missing in its purest application here is the triangular model, in which this homosocial desire occurs in situations involving two men and a woman, the two usually fighting over the latter. As Clark notes, this model requires some adjustment to fit the cases outlined here, in which the desire for the sexual object is not always the primary motivation, such as Dagr in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II whose concern is revenge and the reappropriation of his sister Sigrún. Similarly, the conflict between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli expands the geometry of the model here, thereby changing the dynamic, with their flyting being in service of their respective brothers, Höðbrodd and Helgi.

The fourth chapter moves away from direct theoretical models with a consideration of the way in which the themes of many of the heroic poems and in particular Hamðismál mirrors descriptions of Ragnarök, with the works providing a near constant invocation of the end of the world and its portents. Clark draws attention to the way in which kin-slaying and revenge is depicted in Völuspá, not just as one of the qualities of the end times but as something seen in the prelude to Ragnarök, where Loki causes the death of Baldr at the hands of his brother Höðr, whose own death at the hands of his newly-born brother, Vali, continues this cycle of fratricidal violence. Literary allusions to the themes of Ragnarök within the heroic poems, thus, convey a similar sense of an all-pervading and inevitable doom, creating a simulacrum of the divine end of the world that the mortal heroes then inhabit.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga spread The themes of nid and ergi found in earlier chapters recur in a consideration of sexual themes and conceptions of the heroic past in Gisla saga, which asks once again a constant question found throughout this book with regard to the intent and judgement of the various authors in their depiction of revenge: is it admirable, or something barbaric, perhaps embarrassing, belonging to the past? Arguably the starkest positioning of this question is found in the fifth chapter’s discussion of the uneasy balance between, shall we say, the inherent tendency towards vengeance and bloodshed of pre-conversion Scandinavia and the slightly less heavy on the old revenge message of Christ. Clark documents several instances of the bind priests were in when trying to advocate for the latter over the former, noting that as celibate men adverse to pugnacity and proffering peace, they were vulnerable to charges of ergi, so contrary were they to Germanic ideas of masculinity.

The book concludes with a discussion of the role of women in revenge scenarios in the sagas, specifically as inciters of vengeance and offerors of cold council, as Njals saga terms it. This is principally a rebuttal of Jenny Jochen’s Old Norse Images of Women, in which it is argued that the literary stereotype of the vengeful women reflected a historical reality. Clark suggests otherwise, preferring ambiguity where others might be categorical, noting several contrary examples from the historical sagas, such as Sturlu saga, in which women also appear as anti-inciters.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga runs to about 180 pages and is bound in a glossy black cloth, titled foiled in gold on the spine, and wrapped in a full colour dust jacket, featuring a detail from Arthur Rackham’s The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie. With its page count and octavo size, this feels deceptively like a slight volume, but Clark’s writing is dense and thorough, providing an intense and welcomed look at his subject matter.

Published by Oxford University Press


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