The Echo of Odin: Norse Mythology and Human Consciousness

Title: The Echo of Odin: Norse Mythology and Human Consciousness

Publisher: McFarland

Author: Edward W.L. Smith

Pages: 211pp

This book is an exciting new take on the material of heathen mythology. There have been psychological interpretations of Norse myth before, of course, notably by Jung. Smith is not continuing a Jungian interpretation in this book, however, but filling in what he regarded as a gap in Maps of the Mind by Charles-Hampton-Turner, which examines a philosophy of mind, including Greco-Roman mythology, but not Norse mythology

Smith examines each world in heathen mythology, such as the world of the light elves, as representing a type of human consciousness. He places the mythology in a historical context of broad threads of different ideals and types of consciousness in Western pagan and heathen traditions, and in Near Eastern Christian ones. 

The author starts by defining myth as contrasted with fable, parable, and fairy tale. The first chapter contrasts various cultures’ origin stories with those of the heathens. The second chapter deals with the World-Tree and the Nine Worlds. It sets the stage for subsequent chapters which examine one world at a time.

The chapters on individual worlds include a lot of psychology as background to the exploration of the psychological in the form of the worlds and their inhabitants. Because so much background is explained, even readers who have not read a lot of psychology can follow the ideas presented.

Heathens and pagans might disagree with some of the author’s assertions, such as that Hel isn’t a goddess, despite that Smith outlines many godlike functions she fulfills. In reading this, we have to keep in mind the author’s intent is psychology, not theology. He is trying to elaborate a picture of the human mind derived from the mythology of the Nine Worlds, rather than establish religious canon. 

In comparing Norse mythology and cosmology to other cultures, the author sometimes uses terms not embraced by modern representatives of those cultures. Those who often work with the Dwarves may find the author’s description of them too negative. Similarly, those who are close to Loki may find the Snorri-centric depiction of him in the book to be inaccurate in a way that has grown tedious through the repetition by others of traditional tales that fails to take more positive lore into account. The author seems to miss the point of the story of the stone in Thor’s head, not mentioning that it’s a flint. Smith contends that Freya is a love goddess and Odin a war god, which fails to embrace their full complexity. He also seems to completely misunderstand what ergi is. Nonetheless, those are details, and the big picture of the book is a unique and useful framework. 

The treatment of each realm and its associated beings as a model for a type of human consciousness is the only truly heathen-derived theory of mind ever offered within the discipline of psychology. Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious encompass far more than heathenry and thus are not as specifically heathen in cultural derivation. As such, this theory may prove very useful to heathens and others influenced by heathen literature and culture.

Smith examines the relationship between the names of the Norns, the concepts of wyrd and orlog, and the structure of Germanic languages with regards to past, present, and future. He’s on sure ground when writing of linguistics. Then he tries to examine the runes, but he does not believe they are magical. Most heathen and pagan readers will disagree.

Smith goes on to consider the significance of the number three in historical and modern culture and psychology. Some of the briefly mentioned references may be a bit eyebrow-raising, but as they relate to the modern end of the span of history, they don’t detract from the overall point.

The author compares the Ten Commandments to the Havamal, with an extended treatment of the differences between Judaic law and Christian interpretation. In comparing the Ten Commandments to the Havamal, Smith derives his own set of virtues from the text, which he divides into warlike and nonwarlike virtues. He is either unaware of the Nine Noble Virtues or chooses to ignore them. Smith’s set differs from the Nine considerably.

Smith touches on various psychology treatments and models. He explains the conflict between gods and giants in terms of the Edge of Chaos, a system perfectly balanced between two extremes. He distinguishes between a map of human consciousness, such as the map he derives from Norse mythology in this book, and a theory of human consciousness, such as a psychological theory. Maps describe, theories explain.

I recommend this book for the college level reader interested in theories of mind, psychology, and heathen mythology. It is a groundbreaking view of the heathen material, and as such it opens a new field for further thought and study. 

[Reviewed by Erin Lale.]

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