This Encyclopedia is an important new work by Claude Lecouteux, a retired professor specializing in medieval literature, and translated from the French by Jon E. Graham. Lecouteux was Chair of German Civilization and Literature of the Middle Ages at Paris Sorbonne University. This book is suitable for both academic and general readers interested in medieval and folktale era folklore creatures. Despite touting mythology in the title, however, the entries for beings and objects from pre-Christian mythology are not as good as the ones derived from post-Conversion literature. This is an excellent reference for medieval and later folklore characters and contains a wealth of information from many sources, some of which are not easily available. This book belongs on the bookshelf of every student of Christian-era European folktales.
This book starts with an introduction by the editor, Michael Moynihan, explaining how to read the foreign words and use the entries in the Encyclopedia. Readers who are not used to reading academic works in this field will find this helpful. The introduction also includes a defense of Germanic culture against stereotypes. I was disappointed that Moynihan said that Loki is evil. It seemed surprising to me that an Encyclopedia, ostensibly an objective academic work, would take sides in a religious schism. Unfortunately, such value judgments appear in the Encyclopedia entries themselves, directed at several different heathen gods.
Entries include various figures from folktales and related literature, either by name or function. For each literary character, the author includes a synopsis of the tale, sometimes a translation of the name, and sometimes cites a source. He includes the character’s major characteristics, such as significant or magical possessions, family, country, et cetera. In addition, gods and other beings such as giants are identified by tribe or species, and spheres of influence. Short quotes from source materials are sometimes included. There are many black and white historical illustrations.
In a couple of places, such as the entry on alfs, I was surprised by the use of a casual term of Anglo-Saxon origin to refer to defecation. It is refreshing to see common words used in a scholarly work instead of euphemisms.
Another surprise was seeing Alfheim described as Frey’s hall in Asgard rather than a separate world of which he is lord. I was also surprised to see Asgard described two-dimensionally, as being in the middle of Midgard rather than three-dimensionally above it. It’s good to encounter different perspectives.
There are many excellent entries on topics such as stones and their magical uses. Folk magic practices, fairy tale characters, and semi-historical saga and folk tale characters all get their own separate treatments under their names, and sometimes by their functions as well, such as the wild huntsman.
Many of the folktale creatures were new to me, particularly those that did not originate in Scandinavian countries. It’s delightful to know that a person named Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim once lived.
When it comes to the gods of Norse mythology, many of the Encyclopedia entries show the bias of a Christian worldview. Some of the entries even read as Nokean, having a specifically anti-Loki bias, which is unexpected in a work of scholarship, where one usually reads a neutral, atheist perspective. For example, the entry on Balder only includes one of the three versions of his death. There is no mention that a version exists in the lore in which Loki played no part in the story. Lecouteux is certainly aware of that version, because he mentions it in the very short entry on Nanna, but he leaves it out of the long entry on Balder.
In the entry for Mjollnir (which the Encyclopedia spells with two Ls) the author does not mention that Loki commissioned the hammer along with other gifts for the gods as part of a contest, but Lecouteux does mention that Loki was in the smithy bugging the smith while he forged it, which makes no sense without the explanation that he was already there because he was the customer. Lecouteux goes out of his way to relate only the negative parts of the story of the forging.
The Encyclopedia entry on dwarves glosses dwarves as “malevolent.” That’s an odd value judgment to make against beings who made an impressive array of the gods’ magical tools, which the Encyclopedia lists right after saying that. Or, it seems odd to me, as a heathen, because I see the gods as positive forces for humankind. Beings who created characteristics of the gods cannot be malevolent. Lecouteux apparently does not see these beings through the worldview of the culture that composed these stories about them.
Negative value judgments against the heathen gods show up in several different entries. For example, on the entry on Norns, he writes that they are “depicted as wicked.” They’re depicted as frightening, certainly, because they are powerful, and have powers and objects relating to death, such as the skull-weighted loom. They are not beings to be trifled with. That does not make them wicked, however.
There is, of course, Christian perspective built into the source material on Norse mythology, since these stories were oral traditions written down in the Conversion and post-Conversion era. Scholars routinely filter that out, however. To show this book’s bias against the heathen gods in high relief, let’s compare a couple of the entries in this Encyclopedia with the corresponding entries in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which is an unbiased work of scholarship. I’m using the 1966 edition because that’s what’s on my bookshelf.
Lecouteux’s entry on Frigga describes her, along with Freya, as having “notorious conjugal infidelity.” That’s an odd value judgment to make against a Mother Goddess. The standard by which he is judging does not apply to that type of being, but apparently that point is lost on one looking through the lens of Christian-influenced modern Western culture. Although Lecouteux does not cite a source for the notion that she is unfaithful, it had to have come from Lokasenna, which is the only place that references Frigga being with Odin and his two brothers in what appears to be a negative way. If that is indeed where the author got that idea, he completely misunderstood that story. In that story, Loki roasts the gods and goddesses. He tells four different goddesses they are loose. I paraphrase: “Sif, you’re loose because you slept with ME. Tyr, your wife is loose because she slept with ME. Freya, you’re loose because you slept with every man in this room, including ME. Frigga, you’re loose because you slept with my brother’s brother, which means ME.” On the surface, he’s calling names, but underneath that he’s boasting of his prowess. The accusation of looseness is so meaningless that Freya’s father shrugs it off by saying there’s no harm in a woman taking lovers. It’s an obscure point made as poetic razzing, and an odd thing to use to define Frigga in a book that does not devote much space to her. The statement in that story may not be true, but even if it is, either Odin is a triune god, so his brothers are hypostases of him, or the three brothers are separate but share the throne in a triumvirate, and that would make that a marriage of three kings with one queen. That is not infidelity, it’s polyandry.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on Frigga in its entirety: “Frigg, the wife of the god Odin (Woden) in northern mythology, was known also to other Teutonic peoples, as Frua in German and Frea in Langobardic; in English her name still survives in the word Friday.”
Lecouteux’s Encyclopedia does also include linguistic information on her, like the Brittanica does. His entry on her is a little longer, and includes yet another retelling of the story of Balder’s death.
Lecouteux’s entry on Odin opens with: “The principal deity of the Norse and Germanic pantheon is a cruel and spiteful god, a cynical and misogynistic double-dealer, whom the Romans interpreted as being similar to Mercury.”
The Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on Odin begins with: “Odin (Odhinn), one of the principle gods in Scandinavian mythology.”
The Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry is too long to quote in its entirety, but it is written in a way that does not make value judgments on its subject. The only descriptive term reflecting the author’s opinion is “complex.”
My copy of this book is an eARC supplied by the publisher, and thus, expectedly contains some errors and typos which I trust will be corrected in the published edition. For example, there are several places where the heathen gods’ family relationships are mistaken, a daughter listed as the mother, a brother listed as the son, et cetera. Some of the incorrect information goes beyond simple errors, though. Let’s look at one of them.
The entry on Vartari: “Vartari (“strap”): name of the string the Aesir used to sew shut the mouth of Loki when they punished him for causing the death of Balder.” This is incorrect. The story where Loki’s lips are sewn shut is the story of the forging of Thor’s hammer. It has nothing to do with Balder. The Aesir didn’t do it, the dwarf Brokkr did. Loki pledged his head to Brokkr to get him to forge the hammer. It was a bet. If the hammer was judged the best of all gifts, Brokkr would win, and if it was not judged the best in the contest, Brokkr would lose. Brokkr won the bet, but Loki got out of having his head cut off by arguing that although Brokkr had a right to his head, he had no right to one inch of his neck. So Brokkr could not cut off Loki’s head, but he could do something else to the head, and he used the cord named Vartari to sew Loki’s lips shut. This was a legalistic compromise, and perhaps a wish that Loki would make no more oral contracts. This bit of lawyering is so famous that a logical fallacy is named after it, Loki’s Wager.
This book is a handy reference for understanding medieval and later texts. It can also serve as an introduction to folklore material, which can be read a few entries at a time. The book is strong where it sticks to facts, but weaker at interpretation. It’s especially strong on medieval literature, which is to be expected given that is the author’s academic specialty. It’s also strong on later folktales, fairy tales, and folklore, particularly Renaissance and Romantic material. For material originating in pre-Christian times, especially heathen oral traditions written down in immediately post-Conversion times, the interpretations are to be taken with a grain of salt. However, even those familiar with mythology may find many details they did not know, particularly historical and linguistic details that were not included in the original literature.
Is this book a replacement for Simek, or for the Ordhasafn of Gamlinginn? Sadly, no. It is not the best source of information for heathens and pagans wanting to know about heathen gods they might be interested in worshipping. Any beginner’s book on any of the various heathen traditions, such as Asatru, Theod, et cetera, would be a better choice for that purpose.
However, this is the most complete and most up to date reference for Christian-era Northern European folktale and folklore characters. I highly recommend it for both academic and general readers of post-Conversion folktales and folklore.
[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]