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A Dictionary of Northern Mythology Paperback – April 28, 2008
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There is not a page that does not inform and enthuse. --Runa
Scholarly and precise - should be established as the standard work on its subject - belongs in any major reference collection. --Reference Reviews
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
The perspective throughout is continental and German, rather than, like most of the works currently available in English, Scandinavian or Anglo-American. Heroic legends are considered only where they unquestionably overlap with stories of the gods, or appear to preserve descriptions of rituals and beliefs. Scandinavian words and names are generally given in their original spelling, including special letters and accents, either as the main heading, or at least as an alternative to a familiar Anglicized spelling. (Some casual readers may find this annoying, but it is extremely useful.) Latin sources include not only the inevitable Caesar, Tacitus, and Pliny, but inscriptions with Germanic, or possibly Germanic, names, notably including dedications to the "Matronae," on which the readily available literature in English is rather small.
Three quarters of fairly serious study of Old English at UCLA, plus a lot of unsystematic reading, does not give me the background to pass an independent judgment on the etymologies, but the German edition seems to have been well-received by the professional community. The main secondary sources Simek cites are highly reputable. In the few instances in which I have studied the literature about a name or word, Simek's views are entirely reasonable (even if I don't always agree with the side he is on.) I expect to use Simek as a basic reference on these matters for years to come, along with two other recent reference volumes, Lindow's "Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs" and Orchard's "Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend."
The cumulative bibliography is impressive, and seems well-chosen; I expect to make considerable use of it. Given its length, there are only a few unexpected omissions. The nineteenth-century Stallybrass translation of Jakob Grimm's pioneering "Deutsche mythologie" (as "Teutonic Mythology"), long available from Dover Publications in paperbafck [and since re-issued by them is hardcover], is missing. One might presume that the German original is listed for its historical interest only, but in fact it is cited, by page numbers, as a basic reference in some articles. Adding or substituting the English version would have been a convenience; although added work for the industrious translator. Among recent titles, the English translation of P.V. Glob's "The Mound People" is included, but not that of his better-known account of Iron Age bodies preserved in peat, "The Bog People" -- it *is* obsolete, but so is the Danish original! Although there are probably other gaps, given the number of titles involved, and the variety of languages they represent, these are minor issues.
So far, overwhelmingly to the good.
Unfortunately, coverage of narrative sources, particularly those from outside of Scandinavia, is oddly spotty. Some of it is quite good, but some is not. For example, the Venerable Bede (page 33) does indeed give the earliest extant (but not necessarily the earliest) version of the story of Hengest and Horsa, and the arrival of the Germanic tribes in Britain. But he has nothing to say of Scyld Scefing, who appears as such only in "Beowulf." Simek elsewhere gives the impression that Beowulf the Dane, son of Scyld, is the hero of the epic, instead of Beowulf the Geat. (It is generally, although not universally, accepted that the Danish Beowulf is a scribal error for Beow[a], son of Sceaf in other texts.)
Most of the factual errors I have spotted are easily corrected by consulting the (usually well-known) original sources, or just another reference book, but a lot of people probably won't bother, so their presence is disturbing. If they are carried over from the German edition, they should have been caught and corrected by the time the author revised the book for the present translation.
There are also some more purely typographical errors, such as "Nennius" for Ennius, an early Latin poet (page 75). (A Nennius is the author, according to some manuscripts, of a "British History" in which Hengest and Horsa appear, along with Vortigern and a version of Merlin ... and perhaps should have rated an entry.)
An immediately attractive feature of the book is the information on the modern "reception" of the character or story -- poems, plays, operas, art, etc. However, I hope that the information on German works is more accurate than that on English and French literature. For example, Simek correctly reports, as has long been recognized, that the Germanic dwarf Alberich entered French literature as Auberon (later Oberon), an undersized Fairy King in the story of "Huon of Bordeaux" -- but that is a Carolingian, not an Arthurian, romance (page 6). Elsewhere, "Huon de Bordeaux" is certainly *not* the author of an Elizabethan chapbook about Oberon (page 239)! The latter entry also confounds the characters of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Spenser's "The Faerie Queene." Of less literary moment, on page 323, "the cartoon series *Der maechtige Thor*" is probably the (unrecognized by the translator?) Marvel comic book "The Mighty Thor." Two novels are cited as "Literature" under "Werwolves" -- from other information, the titles of both appear to be metaphorical, and one (in German!) should read "Wehrwolf" not "Werwolf." (The science fiction and fantasy fan in me wants to replace them with James Blish's "There Shall Be No Darkness" and Jack Williamson's "Darker Than You Think," among other titles.)
In conclusion, this is a worthwhile work, which seems trustworthy in its area of main focus, and somewhat erratic when covering side issues, particularly modern literary works.
The most immediately obvious issue is the lack of an index or table of contents of any kind. This situation is made more problematic by referrals to entries that do not exist or appear to have been absorbed into other entries (for example "stag cult"). The only organization that occurs in this work is bare-boned alphabetical order. In other words, prepare to sail solo in a sea of small entries about votive inscriptions, my friend.
Much more of a problem is Simek's presentation of theory as fact combined with hyper-criticism of Snorri. Simek's approach to Snorri seems to owe something to the infamous ideological sphere of Eugen Mogk and Sophus Bugge. In other words, Simek generally seems to be of the school of thought that if Snorri is the only one to attest to something, then clearly Snorri must have simply made it up or was just confused. Sure, while Snorri's systematic, manual-writing approach may sometimes veer off into synthesis and blatant Euhemerism, Simek's criticisms are often rooted in plain conjecture, frequently throwing the principle of "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" to the wind. Sometimes these criticisms are even flatly wrong. For example, in an entry for "Vanaheimr", Simek matter-of-factly states that, in the Prose Edda book "Gylfaginning", Snorri "unquestionably invented the name as a counterpart to Asgard". However, Snorri's claim is in fact echoed in a stanza of the Poetic Edda poem "Vafþrúðnismál":
In Vanaheim wise powers him created,
and to the gods a hostage gave.
At the world's dissolution,
he will return to the wise Vanir. (Thorpe trans.)
A straightforward mistake, and while Snorri need not always be taken at face value (for reasons mention above), it needs to be pointed out that Snorri had access to material now long lost to us ("Heimdalargaldr", as an example, comes to mind), and, that said, I am reminded of a quote from the Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil: "On this point as on so many others, Snorri knew what he was saying better than we do" (1973, "Remarks on Heimdall").
This is hardly an isolated problem. Some entries contradict one another; compare the entry for the goddess Hlín to the entry for the goddess Sága. Were they written by different people? Other problematic entry examples include an entry on the goddess Sif that somehow manages to argue against the "earth goddess" notion without mentioning the matter of Sif's "earth" heiti, the--to be frank--outright bizarreness of the *tiwaz-related entries, and an off-handed dismissal of the Indo-European Fjorgynn-Thor question (and, for that matter, an antiquated shyness towards Indo-European studies as a whole). In this handbook Simek's opinions and preferred theories are pushed throughout, the word "recently" appears in entries apparently dating back to the 1970s, and the provided etymologies, as they are translated from German to English, need to be double-checked before use.
At the end of the day, when one needs reach for this handbook, checking the source material for confirmation is a necessary additional step lest one ends up with egg on the face. Consider also supplementing it with Andy Orchard's and John Lindow's handbooks which, while smaller and less wide in coverage, generally do not suffer from the same issues.
Simek provides a great deal of information in this work and references to the sources. Hence it is an extremely useful work when one wants to get a quick overview of his views on the sources, with enough material to go further and check for yourself. Obviously like all secondary sources, it should not be taken fully at face value.
What sets this work apart from other dictionaries of mythology is the depth the author goes in exploring etymologies of names and providing usable source citations. Hence even if you know the mythic material, the work provides some additional elements not found in simply looking at the sources. However, at the same time, the sources are properly cited so you can go and read more.
In general, I would consider this to be an absolutely indispensable reference for serious work in the fields relating to Germanic mythology and saga.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It is very thorough and easy to use. It's a great tool while reading stories of the old gods.