Myths and Magic in the Medieval High North

Anthjology to be published with Brepols in 2020.

Despite enormous interest in Viking-age Scandinavia, there is relatively little published material available in English for the history of the northernmost parts of the continent. Emphasis has more often been placed on the Scandinavian impact on Europe, on the colonisation and formation of new societies and only to a lesser degree on the contemporary evolution of structures of authority in the homelands. Furthermore, even the accounts that do deal with the latter tend to overlook the role of the High North, especially the internal processes that took place in situ and how the northern ethnic, political and social conditions affected the wider processes of early Scandinavian state building, Christianization and centralization in the area.


The reason for that has to do with traditional ways of thinking about the High North. There is a long tradition in European culture of treating it as a place with special attributes. With its remote location, harsh climate, boundless geography, complex ethnic composition and often seemingly strange ways of life, the North has been considered as the hearth of evil – by St Augustine; as the end of the world, as the home of monsters and supernatural beings, as a hotbed of magic-wielding sorcerers, and as the last bastion of recalcitrant paganism. Elements of that picture are to be found in many historical and literary treatments of the North from the Middle Ages, even those from authors with first-hand knowledge. The familiar stereotypes were clearly too strong to be ignored; but it is also inescapable that elements of the northern myth contained enough truth that even those better-informed writers chose to perpetuate them.


As Scandinavians were beginning to think about and to record their past during the High Middle Ages, a new layer of myths and interpretations was being created, at least in part to support the development and expansion of national monarchies and the establishment of the Christian church, and to differentiate between what pertained to these structures and those that did not. The products of these mythopoeic processes came to dominate the general perception of the High North and its place in medieval Norwegian history; the effect was to overshadow important characteristics and aspects of the north both in itself and as a part of wider, national developments.


The anthology, which will be pubslihed with Brepols in 2020, is the result of the group’s research to date on the themes of myth and magic, through studies in history, philology and archaeology. The eleven papers each in their own way address questions around that theme, all with the common aim of contributing to our understanding of northern society. The volume thus presents new research on northern Fennoscandia, very much from a northern perspective.  It explores the ways the High North was represented in medieval sources, and how the emerging central authorities and the multi-ethnic population created their own myths, both as part of, and in reply to, the expansion of royal and ecclesiastical organisations.

Co-edited by Miriam Tveit, Richard Holt and Stefan Figenschow.



20.-21. April 2017: Author workshop, Tromsø

January 2018: First drafts handed in to publisher

Autumn 2018: Language vetting second drafts

By year’s end 2018: Complete manuscript to be handed in to publisher

2020: Publishing



Creating the New North research group