Review: Iron Age Myth and Materiality by Lotte Hedeager

I’ll be honest with you. Some people say I am “knowledgeable” when it comes to Heathenry, but I’m actually not that well read, I just remember what I read, and most of the time the Heathen books I read are popular books made by Heathens for Heathens (even though 90% of Heathen books are crap) or generic Pagan 101 books. They are not only easy to read but affordable.

Every so often though, I put on my serious university graduate hat and read a dry academic book. This one initially popped up on my radar because a bunch of people kept posting interesting quotes from it on tumblr. I happened to check it out on Amazon when it was the very affordable price of $7, so I bought it, because $7. The price has since increased to $56 CAD, so either there was a database error or Amazon was just marking down random books, either way, I lucked out.

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In simple terms, Iron Age Myth and Materiality examines the relationship between myth and material culture (basically, stuff a culture makes, like jewelry or weapons). Hedeager’s exploration of myth pays particular attention to the mythic cycle of Odin, and touches on topics like the role of animals in elite warrior culture, gender and sexuality, the status of the smith as an outsider (including speculation on why dwarves are all male in the source material), the hall as a possible “centre” of the Heathen universe (in the same way churches are constructed to reflect a Christian universe), and how sweeping political changes and upheaval influence the myths, here paying special attention to the influence of the Huns in Scandinavia.

First let me state that this is going to be a short review, since this is a book about archaeology and my only foray into archaeology was a brief “Baby’s First Guide to Digging Old Stuff Up” in university as part of another course, I’m not equipped to critique this book at all. I can only talk about things that I thought were interesting and/or relevant to Heathens and Norse Pagans, while keeping in mind that this text was not written with us in mind or intended to be used as a guide to how to do religion, that’s what the crappy 101 books are for, after all. Consider this more of a guide to some interesting things you can find in this book, rather than a proper critique.

The most interesting chapter for me (and I suspect one of the more interesting chapters for my readers) is the chapter “Other Ways of Being in the World” which discusses gender and sexuality in relation to power and status, particularly in ways that they disrupt the social order. Here is a relevant quote from the beginning of the chapter: “One of the primary lessons to be learned from recent studies of sexuality is an understanding that sexual diversity in the past was far more variable than conventional historical and archaeological narratives have allowed.” (p. 106) She discusses everything from the volsi cult to ritualized cross-dressing and artifacts that apparently depict gender variance. Interestingly, one of the artifacts she discusses is a famous image of Tyr with his hand in the wolf’s mouth, suggesting that he is depicted with breasts and in a mini skirt. There’s also a brief mention of “penis stones” possibly being tied to cults of Njord or Odin. Interestingly, she asserts that ritual “erased the boundary between the sexes” and the strictness surrounding the body, modes of dress, and adornments “attempted to stabilize social gender” (p. 133) and thus society was balanced between restrictive “mundane” life and liminal ritual spaces. Note that, as modern people, we shouldn’t reproduce these restrictive and archaic notions of manliness and womanliness, but it does make an interesting case for gender ambiguity and fluidity in both ancient and modern Heathenry. True Heathens break gender roles!

Another interesting thing about this book is Hedeager’s hypothesis regarding the relationship between Scandinavians and the Huns. In a nutshell, she argues that contact with the Huns not only affected trade, but the familiar myth cycle we know and love. In other words, when the stories say that Odin and the Aesir came from Asia, they’re actually talking about Attila the Hun, and that the Huns not only invaded Northern lands, but actually had a brief period of rule there. Now before you recoil in horror because “if Attila is Odin does that mean the myths aren’t real!!” Hedeager mentions that of course Odin was a god, but also argues that much of the known world was forever changed by the Huns, and Northern Europe is no exception.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to discuss gender and sexuality in Iron Age Scandinavia without running into sexism and homophobia. The same chapter on gender and sexuality also includes graphic descriptions of human and animal sacrifice (including child sacrifice). Here’s a fun drinking game: drink whenever a reference to “penetration” crops up, because there’s a whole section dedicated to it.

This is barely scratching the surface of the topics that are discussed in this book, and even if you aren’t well versed in archaeology, this book is still a very interesting read and includes copious notes and a bibliography filled with sources that might potentially interest a Heathen. Regardless, there are some very fascinating assertions in this book, and for that, it gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find it for as cheap as I found it. That’s the trouble with academic books, isn’t it? All the interesting stuff is couched in jargon with a high price tag. If you have more of a background in archaeology than I do, you’ll probably get more out of this book. If you’re at all interested in the way material culture intersects with myth, this is one for your shelf.

There, there’s my review of a dry academic book for the year. On the subject of lighter reading, I really want to read Jailbreaking the Goddess by Lasara Firefox Allen, but for now, back to the TBR pile and all those YA books I have yet to digest.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Iron Age Myth and Materiality by Lotte Hedeager

    1. Really??? Thank you! I don’t see where I can drop a note though (it’s early in the morning and I’m sleepy). My email address is kryhea(at)yahoo(dot)com if you want to send a copy that way.

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