Neil S. Price. The Viking way: religion and war in late Iron Age Scandinavia.
Neil Price's Uppsala dissertation attempts to recapture 'the subtlety and sophistication of the Viking mind' (p. 93) in which the pervasive presence of magic--real magic within a real society--was an integral part of the world view. As such, it represents one of the most important contributions to Viking studies in recent years, quite possibly in recent decades.
Price's manner of proceeding is logical, persuasive and theoretically astute. After two introductory chapters, which discuss what an attempt at 'cognitive archaeology' for the Viking period would look like, and what the main problems are in investigating Viking magic (especially in its most celebrated form of seithr) there are three central chapters: the first examines seithr in fine and attentive detail; the second compares seithr with the Sami equivalent (if that is what it is) of noaidevuohta; and the third connects seithr and noaidevuohta with broader phenomenon of circumpolar shamanism. From this position, Price is able to return more purposefully to Viking Age Scandinavia itself in his two concluding chapters; these consider how violence and aggression may have been supernaturally empowered and understood (with a recurrent focus on the figure of Othinn, the god who brings together the war and religion of the book's subtitle) and finally how this may have resulted in--or from--a distinctive mentality (the 'Viking way' of the title). Price's powerful conclusion is that Viking Age shamanism was at the same time both 'a kind of battle magic' (p. 390) and also 'nothing less than a view of the nature of reality itself' (p. 393). From this perspective, therefore, what we might now call 'becoming a Viking' may well have been 'a profoundly religious act', appreciated most clearly in the form of 'ritualised aggression' (p. 391).
On the way to these striking and well founded conclusions there is much to learn from and enjoy. Particular highlights include: a reasoned advocacy as to why archaeologists should concern themselves with written sources just as much as historians or literary scholars do; a penetrating account of the ways in which the study of Norse religion became dangerously entangled with Nazism in the course of the 20th century; a brilliant survey of the archaeology of seithr, with a particular emphasis on the apparent graves of volur or prophetesses; a lucid meditation of a good deal of specialist scholarship on shamanism the world over; a startling vindication of Ibn Fadlan as a prime witness to Scandinavian practices; and convincing re-evaluations of the nature and function of valkyrjur and berserkir. Especially important is Price's desire to reinstate the Sami (that is, the people previously known as the Lapps) into the study of Viking Age Scandinavia, to rectify the distortion of 'a Sami-less Viking Age' (p. 239) which standard syntheses of the period depict. The proposal that we should think in terms of a shared Norse-Sami culture in Viking Age Scandinavia has the potential to effect a profound shift in our perceptions.
This is also a very easy book to read: Price's prose is always lucid, and often stylish and witty; the quantity and quality of the illustrations are outstanding and the bibliography is enormous. One complaint, though, is that there is no index (perhaps as the result of its status as a dissertation) and cross-references are only in terms of chapters and not pages. In terms of the assurance with which he handles an extremely wide range of sources, both material and textual, Price is hardly to be faulted (and indeed is greatly to be marvelled at), though students of Old Norse poetry might feel that Price's source-criticism could at times discriminate more sensitively between different types of text (both generically and evidentially).
In conclusion this is an exceptional book which deserves to establish itself immediately as essential reading for anyone interested in seithr, shamanism, the Sami, circumpolar religion, othinn, violence, warrior ideology or simply the Viking Age more generally. Furthermore, literary students of the mediaeval sagas should pay attention to this archaeologist, for Price shows that saga accounts of 'socially-embedded magic' (p. 394) are not likely to be literary inventions of the post-Viking period, but rather ring true and have their roots in the shamanistic world-view of the Viking Age itself.
Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of York, UK