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Part project 2: The Construction of a Norse Mythology in the Intellectual European Networks from 1750 to 1850

Dr. Friederike Richter

From the beginnings of the reception and translation of medieval Old Norse-Icelandic literature outside of Iceland in the late 17th century, a great interest in Eddic mythology can be discerned among European scholars. The interested flared up again in the middle of the 18th century when, influenced by Gothicism, Göransson (1746) published De yfverborna Atlingars, eller, Sviogötars ok Nordmänners, Edda. Soon the interest reached new intellectual grounds outside Scandinavia with the publications of Swiss Paul Henri Mallet’s Monumens de la mythologie et de la poésie des Celtes, et particuliérement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), which was translated into Danish in the same year, and Histoire de Dannemarc (1758–1777), of which a partial translation into German was published (1765) and an English reworking by Thomas Percy entitled Northern Antiquities (1770). These first publications on the subject in French and English became particularly influential and reached much larger, European audiences. They soon prompted further engagement amongst scholars, authors and artists, only few of them working with the Old Norse-Icelandic literary texts themselves, usually relying on the more accessible, contemporary reworkings and thus weaving their own contributions into a discursive network that stabilized Setzungenfrom previous works. This detachment from the Old Norse-Icelandic tradition of the Eddic myths was also accompanied by a nationally oriented reinterpretation. The Old Norse-Icelandic mythology was re-functionalised by national discourses into a Norse, a Danish or even a German mythology, depending on the purpose of use.

Already during Mallet’s engagement with Eddic myths and Old Norse-Icelandic literature, his views changed from a more classicist perception to one strongly influenced by pre-Romantic aesthetics. Furthermore, in the wake of German Romanticism, a certain literary and academic popularisation of the Eddic texts set in. In Germany, this interest was guided early on both by the supposed archaic-original artistic potency recognised in the texts of the Poetic Eddaand the Prose Edda, and by the idea that a pre-Christian or even pre-Roman, autochtonous, i.e. Teutonic-Germanic concept of faith could be found in these medieval texts. When the Brothers Grimm published their Lieder der alten Edda in 1815, they did so within a romantic-academic network that redefined scholarly activity and thus also co-founded university disciplines. But Lieder der alten Edda was only one edition and translation among many that appeared in the same period, thus creating and substantiating a network of interests in Old Norse-Icelandic Eddic myths. When, a few years later, Jacob Grimm published the first edition of Deutsche Mythologie in 1835, this led to “einer epidemieartigen Beschäftigung mit mythologischen Fragen im 19. Jahrhundert” (Kellner, 1994, p. 1).

In the wake of these publications the concept or rather the catchword ‘Norse mythology’ became both a burning glass and an echo chamber for their own Germanic-mythological-religious ideas of a past that functionalised Old Norse-Icelandic literature in its early modern reworkings to feed the incipient national consciousness in order to point to a nationally united future in times of the German confederation and even imperialism. The Setzungen of these works that constructed a pre-Christian ‘Norse mythology’ (or a ‘German mythology’ respectively) have found their way into literature and the visual arts since the Romantic period and echo prominently until today in the study of history of religion and in today’s popular culture. The construction of a ‘German’ mythology, which was affiliated to the ‘Norse’ mythology and partially absorbed it, simultaneously also influenced Eddic literature as a medieval object of study and the post-Romantic study of Eddic literature with retroactive consequences.

The estate of the Brothers Grimm in particular offers an immeasurable source for analysing the early academic networks of the time, their nodes and affiliations, which negotiated and established research paradigms. How this exchange of actors in international networks that also aimed at universally valid research paradigms, was simultaneously used to discursively frame national and nationalist narratives by ascribing supposedly inherent concepts such as ‘Nordic’, ‘German’ or ‘Germanic’ to the Old Norse-Icelandic literature of the Middle Ages and early modern period, will be analysed in the present sub-project. The starting point for the part project will be the estate of the Brothers Grimm archived at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, their private and working library housed at Grimm-Zentrum, and their extensive international correspondence. Mallet’s mainly unedited estate on the other hand is scattered among various libraries and archives, mainly located in Geneva, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Uppsala.

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