Category: Belief and Worldview

Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic (2 vols.) (FF Communications 296/297)

By Clive Tolley. 2009. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica/Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. 893 pages. ISBN: 978-951-41-1028-3 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Timothy R. Tangherlini, University of California, Los Angeles

[Review length: 1360 words • Review posted on June 23, 2011]


Clive Tolley’s substantial two-volume work stands as both an accessible and thorough compendium of materials related to shamanism and the shamanistic in early Nordic mythology, folk belief, and practice. The work, in its encyclopedic consideration of the source materials, updates considerably the important study of Dag Strömbäck, whose Sejd: Textstudier i nordisk religionshistoria (1935) was the first comprehensive consideration of magical practices in pre-Christian Nordic religion. Although students of Nordic religion still frequently consult Strömbäck’s work, Tolley’s compendium makes many of the underlying source materials accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time.

Tolley’s work is broken into two essentially self-sufficient volumes. The first volume focuses on the analysis of the materials in a philological, text-historical, and, to a lesser extent, ethnographic context. Tolley also explores in considerable depth the potential connections between pre-Christian Nordic magical practices and other traditions. He downplays to a surprising degree the role that cultural contact with nearby groups such as the Sámi played in the development of and the particular form(s) assumed by magical practices reminiscent of shamanism in the Nordic region. The second volume is a collection of all of the source materials Tolley used for his study, along with a thorough bibliography and index, and an appendix of maps and illustrations.

Tolley mentions early on that the goal of his study is to, “answer the question of whether Norse literature indicates that ancient Scandinavians had the notion of a practice which might reasonably be termed ‘shamanism,’ whether as an actual phenomenon of ordinary life, or as a motif appearing in fictional settings” (xv). The premise of the study, then, is one that sets the focus predominantly on texts. This philological orientation sets Tolley’s study apart from other studies that emphasize archaeological approaches or ethno-historiographical approaches.

The first volume is broken into seven main sections: a “Prolegomena,” in which Tolley sets out his methodology and describes the main working concepts of his study; “The Place of Shamanism in Society,” in which he explores the concept of seiðr in the context of female-centered shamanism as a feature of agricultural societies; “Metaphysical Entities,” in which he explores the concepts of “soul” and “spirit”; “Cosmic Structures,” that includes a discussion of some of the most well-known features of the Nordic mythological world, such as the Ash Yggdrasill and the ideas of horizontal and vertical cosmological axes; “The Workings of Shamanism,” perhaps the most ethnographically inclined of the chapters, but one that focuses largely on distant shamanistic traditions rather than anything rooted in the Nordic region and the cultures of the Nordic region’s closest geographic neighbors; and “Kindred Concerns,” a chapter that explores literary and mythological motifs that can be used to expand on representations of magical figures in the Nordic materials considered in the other chapters, most notably the figure of the smith; the book concludes with a concise “Epilegomena.”

These chapters are extremely detailed and almost exhaustive in nature. The topics of the sub-chapters are well chosen, and Tolley provides thorough readings of each of the topics argued largely from the perspective of the textual record. The identification and subsequent close-readings of these texts, and the identification of motifs in these texts that have a supernatural, magical, or shamanistic component are read not only in the context of the emerging fabric of the Nordic magical world, but also in the context of other shamanistic traditions from around the world. His conclusion, to which he slowly builds over the course of these many chapters, would be startling if one had not followed his careful argumentation. In his Epilegomena, Tolley writes: “My investigation has…found little grounds for proposing the presence of shamanism in pre-Christian or later Scandinavia, if by that is meant the classic form of shamanism typical of much of Siberia. The evidence does, however, support the likelihood of some ritual and belief of a broadly (but not classically) shamanic nature as existing and being remembered in tradition” (581). Although it may seem that Tolley is trying to have it both ways, the conclusion is intriguingly reminiscent of discussions of shamanism and the shamanistic in Korea, another peninsular region marked by agricultural practice that exists on the far edges of areas that include Tolley’s “classical” shamanism and one where the preponderance of shamans are female. Unfortunately, despite Tolley’s considerable research into many other shamanistic traditions across the world, his brief mentions of Korean shamanism are largely misinformed and based on second- or third-hand references. That is a minor quibble when one considers the work as a whole. Ultimately, Tolley has produced a substantial and far-reaching discussion of the shamanistic in the Nordic region from a comparative philological and text-critical standpoint.

The most consistent and vexing problem with Tolley’s book is his constant search for confirmation of his analyses far outside of Scandinavia, when more local traditions of shamanism and magical practice might lead to a more sustainable argument. This theoretical decision is informed by Tolley’s at times slavish adherence to the concept that societies in similar circumstances—historical, political, and economic—will independently create similar cultural practices, as opposed to the more likely explanation that societies in those circumstances will often look to their immediate neighbors for possible solutions to difficult cultural problems. Of course neither process is exclusive of each other. Accordingly, it would have been helpful to encounter more ethno-historiographical explorations coupled to considerations of culture-contact theories where exchange between close neighbors are fruitfully explored. While an undertaking such as Tolley’s could easily devolve into armchair anthropology or nineteenth-century Romanticism, he is careful to avoid these pitfalls. Fortunately, there is a great deal of material here for discussion, and students and researchers of early Nordic magical practice will find many of the ideas provocative. If a book makes you think, it has succeeded and Tolley’s close readings of texts, and the embedding of those texts in a broader, Indo-European philological and textual framework certainly make you think.

Ultimately, Tolley’s work is an excellent compendium of source materials for the study of magical practices as documented in early Nordic materials accompanied by a provocative and far-reaching series of analyses. The interpretation of these materials in the context of shamanistic practices is a rich area for investigation, and Tolley presents a great deal of evidence for consideration. One may quibble with Tolley’s interpretations, particularly those that aver the consideration of cultural contact between the pre-Christian Scandinavians and the Sámi as a productive realm of cross-cultural fertilization, but that in no way decreases the value of the considerable work and research acumen that undergirds this substantial collection. If one reads Tolley’s first volume as a foil to Thomas Dubois’ Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (1999), with his exploration of culture contact between early Scandinavians and the Sámi, one develops a clearer grasp not only of the likely importance of local cultural contact, but also an understanding of current theoretical arguments that animate this field. One could then complement that reading with works such as Anna-Leena Siikala’s The Rite Technique of the Siberian Shaman (1978) and Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry (2002), and Juha Pentikäinen’s Shamanism and Northern Ecology (1996) as a means to flesh out the discussion of shamanism and the shamanistic among the Sámi and in Siberia. Other recent works such as Xavier Dillman’s highly speculative Les Magiciens dans l’Islande Ancienne (2006) and Neil Price’s largely archaeologically slanted work, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2002), would allow one to develop a broad understanding of the complexities of shamanism and the shamanistic in the Nordic region.

Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic will appeal to a broad range of readers, from those interested in the historical aspects of shamanistic practice to those interested in early Nordic religions. Students will find the work well-written and remarkably well-researched, while scholars will find volume two to be one of the most useful compendia of texts and other records of shamanistic practices from the early Nordic region currently available. As with all FF Communications publications, the book is very well-produced and it includes not only a remarkably thorough index but also a wonderfully complete bibliography.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.