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‘The Viking Spirit,’ by Daniel McCoy

The Viking Spirit

For that matter, these two poles [of friendly and hostile magic] were often two sides of the same coin; to help one person often meant to harm another. This was especially the case for the Vikings, who believed in an “economy of fortune:” there was a fixed amount of luck in the world, and when one person’s luck changed for the better, someone else’s luck must have changed for the worse.

A Facebook friend asked me about this book, and I was embarrassed to say I’d never heard of it. So I acquired The Viking Spirit, by Daniel McCoy, and read it. I was impressed.

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths has long been a standard introduction to the subject, and it remains valuable, but I think The Viking Spirit might supersede it. The book is divided into two sections – first an overview of the sources, scholarly views of those sources, and the nature of the Norse world view. The second section provides short synopses of the myths that have been preserved to us. The author attempts to strip them down to something like their “original” essences, while making it clear that much has been lost, that it’s possible to have more than one “original” version, and that our critical editing is necessarily a matter of guesswork.

My chief fear when I started the book was that it would be full of New Agey spiritual fluff, but nothing could be further from the case. Author McCoy is very hard-headed about his scholarship. He makes some fresh contributions that will be surprising even to old Viking buffs – for instance his view that the Norsemen did not see history as a cyclical phenomenon, but as linear. That contradicts a lot of 20th Century scholarship, but he makes a good case.

I caught McCoy in a few small errors, I thought, especially in his descriptions of Viking life. But I’d be hesitant to challenge him, because he clearly knows his stuff (and I’ve been known to be wrong).

If you’re interested in Norse mythology, I highly recommend The Viking Spirit. Not for young kids, if you want to shield them from some of the earthier facts of life.