Monday, October 22, 2012

Finding Odin

The God Odin

In several postings I have reffered to the works of Thor Heyerdahl and in particular I mentioned that he shortly before he died (2002) he published two books about his hunt for the “real” Odin.1 I also mentioned a devastating review that was published in 2002 shortly after his death, concerning Thor Heyerdahl’s efforts in this area. The review was originally published in Norwegian, but a English translation of the piece was put on the web. Sadly it appears that it is no longer obtainable on the web. I have therefore decided to post the piece in its entirety.

In a previous posting I quoted an author who said concerning Thor Heyerdahl:
Rather than classifying him [Thor Heyerdahl] as a pseudo historian it would be more fair and accurate to call him a careful scholar who sincerely holds some highly speculative hypotheses that are widely viewed as wrong.2
The idea that Thor Heyerdahl can be described as a "careful scholar" is actually quite risible as the following will show in abundance.
(In this piece my stuff is in italics, the rest in regular script)

Thor Heyerdahl and Per Lillieström: Jakten på Odin. På sporet av vår fortid (The Hunt for Odin. Examining our Past) Oslo: J.M. Stenersens forlag, 2001, 320 p.

By Even Hovdhaugen, Christian Keller, Else Mundal, Anne Stalsberg and Gro Steinsland.

The present book review was written before Thor Heyerdahl passed away on April 18th 2002. Only slight linguistic changes have been made after that. Please also note that this review is based on the Norwegian edition of the book. An English edition has been announced.

The Hunt for Odin is a sequel to No Borders (Ingen grenser) (1999). Long sections of the text in the two books are identical. The overlap is so great that it is fair to talk about a partial recycling. Just as No Borders, The Hunt for Odin is a type of book which normally would not be reviewed in an academic publication. When an exception is made, it is because Heyerdahl (hereafter called H) is presenting himself as a scientist. On page 244 he says: “You know, Per, that I am a scientist, and have lived and worked among scholars my whole life”. The publishers are equally unabashed. On the dust cover, H is presented as “one of our most famous discoverers and scientists.” Despite the fact that the book is written in a manner which does not in any way meet the demands of academic literature, it is quite clear that the authors expect their “theories” to be taken seriously.

Their main claim is that Odin, who was worshipped as a god in the Nordic countries during the Viking Period, was originally a historic king who lived in Azov by the Black Sea in the first century BC. In the year 63 BC he supposedly migrated with a great many followers from the Black Sea region to Scandinavia. He first settled at Funen in present-day Denmark, and then created a power-center in Sigtuna in what is now Sweden. As the immigrants from the East were so powerful and prosperous, the ignorant Scandinavians soon started worshipping them as gods. The authors hence regard Odin as a founder of the Norse religion as well as the ancestor of the Nordic peoples.

The authors base their view on the tales of Snorri Sturlusson (1179–1241) in Ynglingasaga in Heimskringla (The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings) about the origins of the Norse gods Æsir in Asia, and Odin’s exodus and his settling in the northern part of the world. The fable from the Ynglingasaga is being read literally. Just as Snorri, in accordance with contemporary medieval practice based his explanations about the origin of the pagan gods on false etymologies, and drew conclusions about historical contexts from sound-alike words in vastly different languages, the authors of The Hunt for Odin base their “theory” on the same and equally fantastic etymologies: the Æsir come from Asia, the Norse god Tyr is the origin of the country-name Turkey (Norwegian “Tyrkia”), Odin’s name can be traced in the Caucasian folk-name Udi, Russian Udin, which H and Lillieström (hereafter called L), link to Odin. The authors find additional support for their theories in archaeological material which was excavated in Azov in 2001 on H’s initiative. This “artifact evidence” is presented in the picture section of the book.

The Hunt for Odin is presented as a dialogue between the two authors H and L (Thor and Per), where the two gentlemen flatter each other as best they can. For the most part, Per is playing the role of the ignorant knowledge-seeker, while Thor is the one giving explanations and wise answers. It is hardly intentional, but the set-up has a slight resemblance to medieval textbooks, which were often organized as a dialogue between disciple and master. The conversation between Thor and Per, however, frequently takes on the character of an involuntary parody, since the “master” often demonstrates as much ignorance as the disciple.

The selection of a dialogue-form in a book which is obviously meant to argue for a specific view is surprising, as the form itself stands in the way of an academic discourse and of critical examination of the sources and the professional literature on the subject. It may be suspected that the form was selected for the purpose of relieving the authors of the tedious and time-consuming task that serious scholars endure to familiarize themselves with the sources and the literature. Just as its predecessor No Borders, The Hunt for Odin is characterized by a shortage of and a strange selection of sources, a total absence of theoretic reflection, and a fatal ignorance of centuries of research. This applies both to specific Snorri- related research, and to general research within History of Religion, Archaeology, Philology and Linguistics. This is reflected in the Bibliography of the book, which reveals that even a central work such as Snorri’s Edda was read only in a Norwegian, incomplete edition. Most of the literature which was used and referenced is of a type which has gained little support in academic circles, such as Omeljan Pritsak’s The Origin of Rus’. Exact referencing is not used in The Hunt for Odin, and pieces of information which may have been picked up anywhere, is often misunderstood and presented out of context. The lack of precision in referencing and quotations makes it difficult to double-check the authors. Still it is clear that even though the book claims to be a research study, it was obviously not written with the critical reader in mind.

Despite the fact that H and L are ignorant about the historiography of their subject, they lavishly present problems that they suggest scholars should engage in. Several times the subject of Troy is brought up, and Thor says: “How Snorri could know about Troy, which only existed in the mythology of Antiquity until Schliemann discovered its ruins in the 1870s, is a mystery which philologists and Historians of Religion ought to engage in.” (p. 257). It would be hard to find a scholar in these disciplines who is so far behind issue that he or she would find this task engaging: there is no mystery how Snorri knew about Troy. On the contrary; every child in the Middle Ages had heard about Troy. The tales about the heroes from Troy were available in Latin from way back in Antiquity, and new versions of the tales were constantly added, subsequently even in the vernacular. We know that in Iceland one version of the story about the Trojan heroes (De exidio Troiae historia by Dares Phrygius) was known from the 12th century. This text was one of the sources used by the unknown author of Veraldar saga which was composed in Iceland, probably in the second half of the 12th century. The whole work, which in Norse was titled Trojumanna saga, was also translated to Norse, most likely in Iceland. Many scholars date this translation to 1200 AD, while others believe it was translated after Snorri’s time. The Latin version was known from earlier on. The stories about the heroes from Troy were also known from Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Mornmouth. Even this work was translated to Norse, most scholars seem to think in Iceland in the early 13th century.

To ask how Snorri could know about Troy, reveals an almost unbelievable ignorance about medieval literary life. That nobody during the Middle Ages – not even Snorri – knew the exact location of Troy, did not reduce the popularity of the Trojan heroes. Snorri identifies Troy with Tyrkland (The land of Turks), which must be regarded as a rather imprecise location. However, a place may be famous even if its location is unknown. In Norwegian history there are few places more famous than Svoldr (battleplace where King Olav Trygvasson was killed AD 1000), although nobody today can identify the place.

H and L have a strange relationship to scholars and to academia in general. H obviously wants to be accepted as a serious scholar, despite the fact that the book is packed with contempt for scholars and the academic Establishment. Worthy exceptions are the scholars that H and L feel they can draw upon to justify their own claims, they are presented as major experts. Modern scholars are, despite these exceptions, generally portrayed as orthodox defenders of the dogmas of yesteryear (p. 13). Many of them are regularly referred to as “Snorri’s opponents”, they are described as being full of contempt for him, distrusting and smearing him, excommunicating and decapitating him (sic!), claiming than Snorri fantasized, forged, faked and made up history: “Too many [scholars] have accused Snorri of downright dishonesty” says H with righteous indignation (p. 122 our translation). All in all, the book contains more than fifty such allegations against the academic community – anonymously, that is, since none of these statements are supported by references to indicate what scholars and what statements the authors have had in mind. To the contrary; statements that are presented by H and L as coming from the “opposition” are in fact construed by the two authors themselves. Perhaps this is the only way they can “win” an argument, but it is a dubious victory; normally this is called to sit on both sides of the table. In serious research, it is considered highly unethical.

H and L depict a world in which they close ranks with Snorri against the attacks from modern scholars; and like knights in shining armor they come to Snorri’s rescue: “…I have never been afraid of challenging the minority of scholars who have never contributed with anything themselves. Those, who hide behind a deceptive title of Professor, or a claim to expertise, but live only to defend ancient dogmas…” says H (p. 244 our translation).

H and L are, however, not in a position to pass judgement on which persons deserve their academic titles and which don’t. Such titles are granted by competent committees after thorough examination of the works of the candidates. And what is more, such titles are normally not self-awarded. Considering the contempt with which H refers to the academic environment, it is highly interesting to note his repeated statements to the effect that in addition to his honorary academic titles, he has also completed an academic education and acquired the title of Dr.philos – the Norwegian equivalent to a Ph.D.

In an earlier book Fatuhiva: Back to Nature (1974, English ed. 1975), H recalls his plans to study at the University of Oslo: “I had made up my mind to study Zoology and Geography … the decision to major in Zoology was an extension of my childhood fascination with nature” (p. 15, our translation). In The Hunt for Odin these educational plans have been brought to completion, and H states: “Personally, I was an educated scientist, a Zoology and Genetics Major with Geography as a secondary subject.” (p. 15, our translation from the Norw. ed.). In The Footsteps of Adam (1998, English ed. 2000), he remembers his teachers Broch and Bonnevie, and says: “Broch supported Bonnevie’s plan that I should take my Ph.D. on a study of the origin of the species in the Marquesas Islands” (p. 78, our translation from the Norw. ed.). In Hvem er hvem (Norway’s Who’s Who) H is also listed with the title of Dr.philos. This book is entirely based on forms filled in by the subjects themselves, in which they describe their education, professional career etc. According to the official records at the University of Oslo, H appears to have neither majored nor graduated at this university. Where, when and on what dissertation he took his Ph.D. is also a well kept secret.

The many characterizations of Snorri-scholars throughout the book make it unquestionably clear that H and L are totally ignorant of the vast body of research on this subject. Professional literature concerning Snorri is totally absent in their Bibliography. Because the authors are unfamiliar with the learned environments of Medieval Europe, and lack elementary knowledge about the research performed over the last couple of centuries, they present their own “discoveries” as important conquests in unknown territory. The fact that Snorri’s works have been subject to intense interest among international scholars for centuries, and particularly during the last couple of generations, is something they either do not know or chose to ignore.

They read Snorri’s texts without any attempt to see them in their contemporary context, and believe that Odin was a historic king migrating to the Nordic countries from the regions east of Tanakvisl (the Don estuary). In this respect, H and L are in tune with the “learned” literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. Olof Rudbeck (1630–1702) becomes their closest ally and mental twin. The learned literature from before the Enlightenment may be entertaining and certainly has its charm, but the charm quickly loses its luster when a book which intellectually belongs to this period is launched 300 years after its time.

H and L have repeatedly explained why they did not waste time acquiring sufficient knowledge in their field of study. It is their firm belief that scholars are stuck in ivory towers, alternatively in small, isolated holes, unable to see the larger picture. H and L, however, unburdened by such knowledge, have the full overview. To maintain that ignorance brings intellectual clarity is a curious position indeed, but in this case it may contain a certain absurd logic; during a research process, factual knowledge will tend to slow down the mind and cause tedious reservations. The larger picture appears bright and shiny only as long as it is not obliterated by facts.

H and L read Snorri as literally as some people read the Bible. Their literal interpretation creates a problem, since Snorri describes that Odin emigrated from Ásgar›r in the Ynglingasaga in Heimskringla, but from Troy in the Edda. H goes to extremes to explain these discrepancies between Snorri’s texts: HeimskringlaThe Sagas of the Norwegian Kings – is a work of history, he claims, in which Odin is portrayed as a human being. Thor is not mentioned in this book, neither as deity nor as royalty (p. 257). Edda, on the other hand, is a work about poetry and the Norse mythology, in which Snorri describes Thor as belonging to the mythical universe; quite contrary to Odin (p. 257). H insists that “Snorri tries in all possible ways to keep Odin apart from the other gods” (p. 39 our translation), and on page 258 he has at least managed to convince Per that Snorri “separated Odin and Thor in two quite different books” (our translation). As a comment to the fact that H and L previously have been informed that Odin in Edda emigrated from Troy and not from the regions east of Tanakvisl (the Don estuary) as in Heimskringla, Per exclaims: “This is outrageous. Never did Snorri identify Odin’s hometown with Troy!… Any layman can look this up in Snorri’s classic work Edda and see it is not so.” (our translation).

The two gentlemen’s relationship to text is an issue in itself, and one may wonder if they have ever read Snorri’s texts in full. It simply is not true when they state that Thor is not mentioned in Heimskringla. He is mentioned in Ynglingasaga, both in Chapters 5 and 7. In No Borders (p. 49) H tries to give this Thor’s presence in Heimskringla an alternative explanation; despite the fact that Odin is described to give Thor his residence Trudvang, which is the also the residence of the god Thor in the myths. The Thor in Heimskringla is – according to H – Odin’s high priest and has nothing to do with Thor the God of Thunder, but may have been named after him. This “explanation” is at the same time both fanciful and ironic: apparently H did not understand that Odin is one of the gods presented in Gylfaginning in Snorri’s Edda, who also appears in other sections of this work. For Snorri, Odin is the foremost among the Norse gods, and in this particular legend he appears in disguise as the trinity High, Just-as-high and Third. The distinction which H wants to introduce between Odin and Thor in Snorri’s works is simply wishful thinking. As for Per’s exclamation that Snorri never identified Odin’s hometown with Troy, we recommend the reader to do exactly what Per suggests, to look it up in Snorri’s text: in the Prologue, Snorri first speaks about Troy “which we call Tyrkland”. Later he describes the exodus of Odin and Frigg with a great retinue from Tyrkland, and upon their arrival in Sigtuna, how Odin appointed chiefs just like back in Troy.

The slanted and inaccurate reading of Snorri’s texts is a good example of H and L’s attitude to sources and academic literature. In the example above, textual elements which do not suit the authors are explained away. In other cases, they read non-existing information into well-known sources: they maintain, for instance, that the Nestor Chronicles describe how the merchants of Rus invited the so-called “Varangian Brothers” (p. 102). This is something they have borrowed from Pritsak, but the Nestor Chronicles themselves do not mention the merchants. One can, in other words, not take for granted that literature and sources are rendered correctly.

H and L claim that they take Snorri seriously when they see Odin as a historic king. If they really wanted to take Snorri seriously, they should have tried to read his mythological texts in the context prescribed by himself. In the Prologue to the Edda, Snorri’s learned understanding of the old mythological material is described. The Prologue has been subject to intense research, because this is where the Christian historian Snorri explains his attitude to paganism; no Christian should be tempted to believe in these old pagan gods, originally they were simply humans and historic persons. This well-known way of explaining non-Christian religions is called euhemerism after Euhemerus, a Greek from about 300 AD, and was adopted by defenders of Christianity in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Another familiar medieval theory used by Snorri was the idea that the ruling dynasties of the Norse had once immigrated to Scandinavia from the centers of the civilized world. This was a way of inscribing the Norse into the known world and into the history of Christianity. The idea was not special to the Nordic countries. The heroes from Troy had long since been reckoned as the “ancestors” of various dynasties around Europe, way before Snorri. An example is the story about Aenaeas who traveled from Troy to Rome and became the founding-father of the Roman Empire. A third theory implied that paganism was a kind of natural predecessor to Christianity (religio naturalis). Snorri combines these three approaches in an ingenious way, and demonstrates that the old Germanic concept of their kings as descendants of gods – or specifically of a god and a jotunn – giantess – could easily be combined with the euhemerism and the ideas of immigrating dynasties from the South. Anyone who neglects the learned medieval tradition in which Snorri stands, has neglected to take him seriously.

To support the idea that Odin was a historic king, H and L refers to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in which Odin is listed as an ancestor of royal dynasties. But the author(s) of these chronicles obviously stood in the same Christian literary tradition as Snorri came to do centuries later. H and L should have been warned by the fact that the stories about Odin’s migration from the regions east of Tanakvisl (the Don estuary) or Troy appear in the Christian sources exclusively. They are totally absent from Snorri’s pagan sources, i.e. the Eddaic poems and skaldic poetry of mythological content. One who wants to see Odin as a king and not a god, should also explain why his name was taboo and not used as an ordinary name. What language Odin and his retinue spoke prior to their exodus, and when they changed to Proto-Norse is also worth examining. H and L do not address any of these issues. Generally, there are few attempts to counter their own ideas.

When it comes to factual historic knowledge and the understanding of medieval culture in general, the book is held at a level which is sometimes hard to believe. Per can for instance inform the reader that the stockfish trade was the largest business in Iceland during Snorri’s time (p. 20). Any textbook on Icelandic history will say that Icelandic export products at the time was furs, fleece and falcons, the Icelandic stockfish trade developed later. Thor informs us that experts in Iceland reckon that a couple of hundred skins of newborn lambs were required to make a book (p. 24). Like most North-Europeans, the Icelanders made their parchment mostly from calf-skins. From page 65 and onwards Thor and Per discuss Orkneyingasaga, and Thor renders the semi-legendary tale about King Nor. He informs Per – and his readers – that “Ragnvald [Earl of Møre in Norway] and Earl Sigurd probably ordered the saga of King Nor to be recorded.” (p. 69 our translation). But Ragnvald Mørejarl and his brother Sigurd lived ages before the Nordic society had developed a written literature. On the same page (and several other places) we are informed that King Harald finehair conquered all of Norway up to and including the Varanger region. The Saami territory of Northern Scandinavia was called Finnmork and was never part of Harald’s conquest. On page 22 we read that Sæmundr Fró›i had read Homer and Herodotus during his studies in Paris. At the time, nobody at the learned centers in Paris or Western Europe could read Greek, and the texts of Homer and Herodotus were not translated till much later. They repeat over and over that the Irish Church in the Middle Ages was Greek Orthodox, which is nonsense, it was Roman Catholic. The list of similar errors may easily be extended.

As it is the pronounced goal of H and L to present new knowledge about the Norse god Odin, it is noteworthy that they have found it unnecessary to obtain basic insight into the field of History of Religion. Scholars with a genuine interest in Norse and Germanic gods would hardly be content with Snorri as their main source. He represents first and foremost the attitude of the learned medieval Christian towards paganism. The belief in Odin and the Norse Pantheon is described in older sources than this. In the skaldic poems and Eddaic poetry, which Snorri also employed, we meet Odin as a Norse version of an older Germanic god, which in turn can be traced back to an even older, Indo-European deity. H and L remove Odin from this context. Their attempt to single out the legend of Odin to become the story about the genesis of the Nordic peoples is naïve to say the least, a delayed version of the nationalistic world view of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their understanding of Snorri Sturlusson is neither new nor original, just out of date.

Much of H and L’s arguments rest on linguistic evidence. The discipline of Comparative Linguistics developed from the beginning of the 19th century, but this has passed H and L by unnoticed. Their approach is to compare etymological similarities without methodical criteria, as it was done prior to 1800. To draw conclusions about historic connections based on superficial similarities between sound-alike words in vastly different languages, without basic knowledge of comparative linguistics or the languages in question, is totally irresponsible. This problem is enlarged when it is combined with a striking lack of knowledge about facts and a total disregard for time and space. When all of this is thrown together, it creates a mess which is almost impossible to untangle.

Let us take an example of a few folk-names that are critical to their argumentation: As (according to H and L the origin of Áss – Æsir), Alan, Os(seter) and Udi (which H and L identifies with Odin), and Vanir. The authors see these folk-names as evidence that Asir, Vanir and even Odin’s own people resided in the vicinity of Azov, spelt Asov by H and L, as this has more of a resemblance to Ás-hov (purportedly the Temple of the Æsir).

The As, Greek Asioi, are known from Strabo (1st century AD). They were probably Iranians. From about 1000 AD As and Alan are used interchangeably and seem to designate the same people, probably the Iranian Ossetians. Today there are no Iranian peoples by this name, but the Ossetians call their Turkish neighbors the Balkars for Asy. When H says: “At this point I decided to visit the people who still call themselves Asir” (p. 32 our translation), he is in fact bluffing. He did not go to the Balkars, but to the Udi and the Azerbaijani, none of which call themselves Asir. H and L connects As with the Norse Áss. At the time when they according to H and L migrated to the North they were not called Áss, but Ansu-/Ansi. Áss is a much younger, Norse term.

Alan is the name of an Iranian people, probably the same as the Ossetians of today. Alan comes from *Arya-, i.e. Aryan. The Ossets call themselves Ir, plural Iron, which is another dialect form of *Arya-. The term Alan is known from the 1st century AD.

In Old Georgian (400 AD) the Ossetians were called Ovs which later changed to Os. The suffix -eti means “land”, so Osseti simply means “The Land of Ossetians”. It is in other words a Georgian term for the people, they have never been called As, and there has never been a phonetic development from as to os such as advocated by H (p. 163).

Udi is an East-Caucasian language spoken in Georgia and Azerbaijan. It is related to 25–30 other East-Caucasian languages spoken in Dagestan in Azerbaijan. The Udi call themselves Udi (with a long “i” and primary stress on the last syllable). The form Udin is Russian. The point here is that the term “Odin-people” is a deliberate misrepresentation construed by H and L. These people have never in the past nor in the present called themselves Odin/Udin. Another matter entirely is the fact that the comparison between Udi and Odin does not take into account that, at the time of Odin’s alleged exodus, his name was not Odin but Wodan/Wotan. Which is pretty fatal what the relationship to the Udi-people is concerned.

As demonstrated, nothing adds up. Udi is an East-Caucasian language and people which is as remote from the Iranian-speaking Ossetians and their Alan ancestors as Norwegian from Chinese. Áss has got nothing to do with Os- in Ossetians. Ossetian is a Georgian name for those who call themselves Ir, Iron which again has the same origin as Alan.

The Vannic people does not fare much better. They were created by H because he once more forgot basic chronology. Van is the name of a lake in eastern Turkey. The oldest people we know in that region were the Urartians who called their land Bianili. The origin of their language is not known. This area later became Armenian, then Iranian and finally Turkish territory. Nobody in the past ever heard about a kingdom called Van or people called Vannic. The term did not originate till the 19th century, when the place-name Van was used to name a “Van-culture” in accordance with regular archaeological practice, in order to connect the archaeological remains to a culture. This happened before the cuneiform inscriptions in the region had been deciphered. The first time the word Vannic was used in English was in 1882! No Vannic people existed at the “time of Odin”, nor at the time of Snorri; but the word Vannic continues to live on in English as an old-fashioned term for Urartic, see Encyclopedia Britannica which H refers to. And – chronology again – the Urartic kingdom dissolved in the 6th century BC. This has been pointed out to H and L in previous book-reviews, but it seems to be beyond their reach. In their latest book they even link the Vannic peoples to the Turkish On-ogurs who arrived in Caucasus and southern Russia around 700 AD! The authors obviously know next to nothing about these peoples, and get completely lost in their own fantasies and lack of knowledge. At one point, however, they are close to earning valuable insight: After listening to Thor going on and on about numerous folk-names, Per exclaims “This is totally confusing”. To which Thor responds “That is exactly what I felt, until I understood that Gagloiti had said the same as our friend Nicolay at the Museum in Asov, only in more complicated terms: In the literature, there are many different names for the same thing.” (p. 248 our translation). We can only confirm that Per was right – confusion prevails.

In our northern latitudes, the ethnic situation should be simpler. Still they confuse the Tsjud’ of the Nestor Chronicles, which refers to the Estonians, with the Zavolotsjkaja Tsjud’, which refers to the “Tsjud’ beyond the portages” as seen from Novgorod, i.e. a lump term for several ethnic groups in that area. Where the authors picked up the so-called Varangian brothers (Norwegian “varangerbrødrene”), is a mystery. Many theories about the origin of the Varjags have been suggested over the years (Varjag = Norwegian “væring”). It is of course possible that H and L stumbled upon some antediluvian theory linking the Varjags to Varanger for etymological reasons (Varanger is a fjord in Finnmark, Northern Norway). The more likely explanation is simply that they read the Nestor Chronicles in an English translation, and were led astray by the English adjective Varangian, which refers to the Varjags.

The two gentlemen parley – often in a condescending, professorlike manner – about many languages they do not know. The quality of the information they give is accordingly, we will give but a few examples: H and L reveal that Aga in Agamemnon was an honorary title for the ruling sovereigns (p. 80). But Aga- in Agamemnon is of unknown origin. Aga meaning lord or ruler is Turkish, and was only introduced to the region a couple of thousand years after Agamemnon. H and L can also explain that the citizens of Azerbaijan call themselves Azeri in plural, which in Norwegian becomes Aser (p. 132). But Azeri (with primary stress on the last syllable) is singular, and would be Azerilär in plural. H and L can even tell that the people they claim were the origins of the Norse gods Æsir, are called As, Aser in Turkish (p. 245). But As does not exist in Turkish, and a plural form would have been Aslar.

Their little lecture concerning the relationship between grapheme and phoneme in the reek and Russian alphabets is hardly more trustworthy. Per says: “We must remember that in both the Greek and Russian alphabets the letters “b” and “v” are identical, and so are “o” and “u”…” (p. 137 our translation). Obviously, they have not understood that one letter can symbolize different sounds in the same or related alphabets. The Russians and the modern Greeks distinguish between b and v and between o and u in both speech and spelling; a fact which the first lesson in any textbook on these languages would have revealed. Even when it comes to Snorri’s own language, the two authors are surprisingly ignorant. When discussing the meaning and location of Bláland (The Blue Land, i.e. the Land of the Blue Men) (pp. 29), they fail to acknowledge that the adjective blár in Old Norse may also mean dark. Their discussions around the meaning of the place-name Svitjod (Old Norse Svífljó›) also end in a total shambles when they introduce a pseudo-Norse explanation which is grammatically impossible (p. 30).

Despite the fact that one of the authors claim to have studied geography, and the other is presented on the dust-cover as a cartographer, it is compelling to see how lax they are with geographical information. We will make do with examples from a single page (p. 135): Here Asov (sic!) and Van are described as the two largest fortified towns in the Caucasus region. None of them are located in the Caucasus. They also talk about “the old Vannic kingdom, now Armenia in the east” (our translation). The people that H and L call Vannic lived by the lake Van in present-day Turkey.

When the two authors mix up both time and place, confusion is immanent. An anachronism of some magnitude is presented on pages 36 – 37 where they describe “the Roman campaign into the Turkish world” (our translation). At the time of the Roman Empire, the Turks were still safe and sound on the far side of the Altai Mountains.

H has performed excavations in Azov to find support for his idea that Odin was a historic king who migrated from the region with his followers during the 1st century BC. Archaeologists work with silent sources, with artifacts which do not speak for themselves. Archaeology is therefore a strictly method-based discipline, and caution should be observed when drawing conclusions. H and L claim that archaeological finds support their idea of Odin’s migration from Azov to Scandinavia. Their arguments suffer from a lack of sufficient insight, both in archaeological method and in artifact knowledge: Immigration, or a suspected immigration to an area can be indicated archaeologically by identifying a foreign influx in an otherwise local context. To prove emigration is a different matter altogether, since this would demand proof that archaeological material is missing, i.e. concluding from negative evidence. This is the problem with excavating in Azov – an exodus such as suggested would have brought the archaeological material from Azov to Scandinavia. Digging in Azov is therefore grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

Typical for the book is also a complete lack of reflection concerning potential similarities between the archaeological material in Azov and in Scandinavia. Would such similarities indicate plunder, trade, diffusion or migration?

H and L use three topics to support their migration-theory (pp. 286): burial customs, weapons and brooches.

Snorri says in the Ynglingasaga that Odin introduced cremation burials to the Nordic countries by law. According to H and L, this happened during the last decades of the 1st century BC (pp. 42, 142, 289). They claim this is supported by the archaeological evidence, and present an archaeology student as their material witness. At the time they indicate, however, cremation burials had dominated in Scandinavia for more than 1000 years. H and L also point out that the “royal” mounds in Old Uppsala contain cremation graves, but they are from the 5th and 6th centuries AD and useless as evidence of an immigration five hundred years earlier (p. 42).

When it comes to weapons, H and L refer to swords, chain mail and a single spear. Russian archaeologists were allegedly stricken by the similarities between swords and chain mail in Azov and in the Nordic countries (pp. 158, 164). Chain mail is rare in Scandinavian Viking Period finds, and detailed information is required for a comparison. Such information is lacking. The swords that supposedly show similarities are documented by a photo of a 2nd century AD sword from Azov, and of five Viking Period swords from Scandinavia and Iceland (9th – 10th century). The photos reveal that the Azov-sword is totally different from the Scandinavian types. The Azov-sword is a Sarmatic/Alan weapon, it is long and narrow, double-edged and without a fuller, but with a lens-shaped or rhomboid cross-section, a single hilt and a round pommel. The double-edged Viking swords have a wider blade with a fuller, and a heavier handle with a double hilt. The two types are designed for different battle-techniques. Nordic peoples of the 2nd century AD used arms similar to the Romans. The Viking sword was the result of a much later Western European weapons development.

A Sarmatian spear from the 1st century AD was found at the farm Valle in Østre Toten, Norway (A.E. Herteig: Bidrag til jernalderens bosetningshistorie på Toten. Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, 2. Hist. Filos. Klasse 1, Oslo 1955, figure 3). H and L have on their own accord located this find to Valle in Setesdal (p. 237) which is erroneous. The find indicates some kind of contact with the Sarmatians, but a single spear can not be accepted as evidence of migration. Trade, gift-exchange or simple theft are more probable scenarios to explain the presence of single items. The erroneous identification of the find to Setesdal may be a mishap, but suspicion arises when H and L also make a point of similarities between the folk music in Caucasus and Setesdal. The folk musician Hallvard T. Bjørgum, who is H and L’s professional alibi in this matter, published a press-release shortly after the book had been published, in which he strongly regretted the way he had been rendered by the two authors.

Comparison of brooches is an important part of H and L’s arguments. Graves from the Azov region shall have contained gold jewelry which – according to H and L – reminded the Russian scholars of finds from Nordic Viking Period graves (p. 158). We never get to see pictures of these finds, nor do we get references to site-names or to archaeological publications.

Bronze items, however, are depicted. Three ringed brooches of bronze are presented as the main “evidence” for Odin’s emigration from Azov. The importance of these brooches is described in the caption (page 15 in the picture-sequence): “The first visible evidence for a cultural influence from Asov to Scandinavia came when ringed brooches similar to Viking Period brooches from the Nordic countries appeared in three different graves from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.” (our translation). These “ringed brooches” from Azov are, however, not brooches at all, but circular belt buckles, found at the hips of the skeletons (page 13 in the picture sequence). They have short, sturdy tongues instead of sharp prongs, and were distributed over most of Europe and east to Siberia. The Nordic ringed brooches have a slender, sharp prong and were carried on the shoulder. There are absolutely no connections between the belt buckles from Azov and the ringed brooches from the Nordic countries, neither functionally nor chronologically.

The plates in the book is a separate issue. A larger part of the photographic material is irrelevant for the book’s purpose and illustrates nothing, other pictures are better suited for H’s family album. Pictures with a serious purpose can be found in pages 16 – 17 in the picture sequence, where the authors apparently have intended to display a typological development of ringed brooches as evidence of migration. The set-up is obviously meant to be chronological; the prongs (tongues) get longer and the rings smaller the younger they are. Equally, the prongs appear to increase in relative length the further west they were found.

The brooches from Azov (a – c) are belt-buckles, as already mentioned, and they are known from most of Europe throughout the Iron Age. They are not comparable to the ringed brooches from Gotland (d – f) which have a sharp prong and were worn by the shoulder. The three horse-shoe shaped brooches (g – i) are according to the caption from a Saami context and date to the 9th century, while in fact they are 200 years younger. In the catalogue containing the original plates (pp. 70 and 419 in The North Atlantic Saga, eds. Fitzhugh and Ward 2000), a dating to the 11th century is clearly indicated. According to the caption (j – k) the prong increases in length from Gotland to the Swedish mainland. However, the short ringed brooch (j) is according to Fitzhugh and Ward (pp. 38, 418) from Västmanland, i.e. the Swedish mainland, while the one with the long prong (k) is from the island of Gotland. Long prongs were characteristic for the Gotland brooches. The four last items (o – r) are not ringed brooches, but ring-headed pins of a Hiberno-Norse type, from Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and Newfoundland.

The typological sequence indicated in these pictures is partly based on incommensurable material (objects intended for different use), partly on willful misrepresentation of an alleged development. This is a clear case of archaeological material being adapted to fit the theory, instead of vice versa.

Even a couple of maps give the impression of being something which they are not. Page 29 in the picture sequence displays a map of the Ptolemey-type, with the deceptive caption:
Ptolemey’s world map from about 150 AD, which Snorre probably was familiar with when he wrote the introduction to the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, where he describes the known geography of his time. The map is from Ptolemey’s Geography. The copy is from ca. 1290 and comes from “Codex Vaticanus Urbinas”,… (our translation).
This is not Ptolemey’s world map, nor is it a copy. It does not come from his Geography, which consisted of lists of geographical observations without a map. The now-existing maps of the Ptolemey-type were all constructed by the Greeks during the Middle Ages, on the basis of Ptolemey’s listed observations.

Even the caption under the map of a fortification on the last page in the picture sequence arouses suspicion. This is “The Fortress of Asov in 1259 according to an old map in the Asov Museum Library.” (our translation). In the picture, however, there is a clearly legible text in modern Russian saying: “Plan of the Turkish fortress of Azov.” (our translation). The Turks did not arrive in Azov till 1471, and angular ‘tenaille-walls’ (as depicted on the plan) were first developed by French engineers during the 17th century, which hence is the oldest possible date of the fortress on the plan. The fortifications in Azov lay in ruins for some time, but were rebuilt in 1769. Whether the plan portrays the fortress before or after it was rebuilt we can not say.

On page 20 in the picture sequence there are two photographs of micro-pearls. The caption says: “Miniature pearls of the same type as in Egypt and the Indus Valley.” (our translation).

The meaning of this is unclear, but the pearls in the two pictures are admittedly similar, in fact they are identical. The picture on the right contains two strings of pearls that also exist in the picture on the left. The purpose behind such a double set-up is anybody’s guess.

The lower part of page 27 in the picture sequence is a photo of a title page of a book which according to H and L is Heimskringla, The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings from 1215, in a printed, German edition from 1765. For starters, Snorri did not write Heimskringla in 1215; if he had written it that early, it would have been older than some of the sources he employed. Second, the book does not contain Snorri’s Heimskringla, it is not a printed edition, and it is not in German. The picture is from a young, Icelandic manuscript of Snorri’s Edda. It was written by Jakob Sigur›sson. He also made some illustrations, such as the depicted drawing of Odin. This manuscript and its illustrations is so well known that any attempt at presenting it for something else is bound to be arrested. On the right-hand page Jakob Sigur›sson copied the title-page from the first printed Edda-edition. It says that this is the book Edda which was compiled by Snorri Sturlusson the Lawman in the Year of the Lord 1215 (today scholars reckon that Edda was written a few years later). It further states that the book was printed in Copenhagen in Icelandic, Danish and Latin in the Year of the Lord 1665 and copied in 1765. Faking a caption in an attempt to mislead the reader is one thing; using pictures containing discriminating text is quite another…

The Hunt for Odin clearly does not meet the requirements of a research publication, but must be defined as pseudo-science. Partly, the book is pseudo-archaeology, also called cult- archaeology, which is an interesting phenomenon in its own right. This type of literature has been discussed by William H. Stiebing Jr. in The Nature and Dangers of Cult Archaeology in F. B. Harrod & R. A. Eve (eds.) Cult archaeology and Creationism, Iowa City 1995. Three simple criteria characterizing pseudo-archaeology are presented: (1) the unscientific nature of cult archaeology’s evidence and methodology, (2) its tendency to provide simple, compact answers to complex, difficult issues, and (3) the presence of a persecution complex and ambivalent attitude toward the scientific Establishment (Stiebing 1995:2).

Most literature of this type exist at the margins of public attention, but occasionally certain works may get the full focus of the media, as was the case with No Borders as well as The Hunt for Odin. This is hardly due to the authors’ new and exiting theories. H and L are just the last in a long line of authors who have promoted similar theories, all based on literal interpretations of Snorri. In the period around World War II the Icelander Bar›I Gu›mundsson published several works in which he maintained that the Ynglingasaga legend about the immigrating Æsir reflect the migrations of the Heruli. A Russian author, Vladimir Sjerbakov, claims to have located Ásgar›r, home of the Æsir, at Nisa in Turkmenistan. He has located Valhalla and even Odin’s ivory throne (which is not mentioned in the Nordic sources). He has published several works on the subject from the 1980s. He has also contacted a Norwegian periodical to have his works published in Norway. Most likely he has discovered that Norway is a convenient market for this kind of stuff, possibly he also wants to demonstrate that he beat H and L to the “discovery”. In 1998 Stein Jarving published a book containing similar ideas to H and L. He has reviewed The Hunt for Odin at the web-adress, where he maintains that H on request was given access to his own material, but expresses regret that his book is not mentioned in the Bibliography of The Hunt for Odin.

The commercial success of H and L, compared to the more anonymous authors, is first of all due to the celebrity of H and his public appeal. When H presents himself as the single person who take on the compact majority of scholars (one of the hallmarks of pseudo- archaeology), it appeals to that part of the public which has a long-lasting distrust in academia. They are also the least equipped to estimate the quality of what is presented. Commercially, this is a winning formula.

Without the media, it is impossible to explain how certain books become commercial hits despite the quality of their contents. Culture-journalists without critical insight but with a devoted admiration for celebrity, combined with media’s craving for juicy headlines, may sometimes contribute to the exposure of issues unworthy of public attention. Public debates sometimes have no other purpose than creating sensations. Like pseudo-science, such pseudo-debates are only interesting as phenomena.

The final responsibility for the book lies with the publisher. If regarded with extreme benevolence, one may argue that the incorrect rendering of sources, faulty referencing and misrepresentation of literature, manipulation of illustrations etc. are not willful attempts at deluding the reader. The authors could be lacking the sufficient knowledge about their subject, and/or the sufficient training in academic writing. It is not quite so easy to find excuses for a professional publishing house specializing in textbooks.

When reading this book, which is packed with factual errors and fatal misunderstandings, one may tend to assume that the publishers tried to cut the costs by publishing the book without having it checked by a professional reviewer. It appears, however, that at least one competent reviewer was involved in the process. We have received a copy of a letter from this person Bjarte Kaldhol to the publisher, and it is clear that he pointed to exactly those fatal errors which really pulled the rug out from under H and L’s “theory”. Kaldhol writes (our excerpts and translations):
Asov should be spelled correctly: Azov. It is a Turkish word and has nothing to do with the word “Ás” (asiz, cfr. Ansgar): to interpret this as the “Hóv of the Æsir” is pure conjecture.

There were no historic peoples by the name of “Vanir”. In the 19th century, Vannic was a term for the Urartic language, but this was because the inscriptions had been found in the vicinity of the lake Van, not because there ever was a people with such a name. At that time the language was unknown and could not be translated. The Urartic people never called themselves Vanir.

The Udin-people in Caucasus has nothing to do with Odin(Wodanaz). This is pure speculation.
The publishers did in other words decide not to pay attention to these very clear signals, but published the manuscript without making any attempt at quality control. It is of course possible that the management had greater confidence in the authors H and L than in the person they had hired to do the review. Another, perhaps more likely explanation could be that the prospects of a good “sell” by a celebrity author proved too much of a temptation. After Kaldhol’s comments, they must have been aware that the book would lead to public debate, which in turn would stimulate further sales. A publishing house is expected to make money, but there is a line.

By deciding to publish a book containing so many errors and so much misleading information as The Hunt for Odin, the publishers have deserted their readers. They have, in a way, also let the authors down when they publish books that may impair their reputation.

The publishers have also taken a risk by letting through statements that may be considered defamatory under Norwegian Law. Such examples are “deceptive title of Professor” (p. 244) and “ass in modern American slang” (p. 256) (our translations). The authors may not speak with a sufficient authority to justify legal action, but the publishers are not in the same way bereft of responsibility.

Is this a book we can recommend for reading? As a research publication it is without value whatsoever. Nor has it any value in terms of factual contents, there are simply too many errors. Still, the book may prove to be quite interesting, although perhaps not in the way intended by the authors. As an example of pseudo-archaeology, The Hunt for Odin is in fact quite interesting. The book is a gold-mine to those interested in research ethics. To anyone with a love for juicy errors and hilarious anachronisms, H and L provide a good read.

(This is an English version of a review written in Norwegian and published in the journal Maal og Minne, 1/2002: 98–109, Oslo. Date of present version: June 28th 2002.)


What can I say except that this is devastating and firmly places Thor Heyerdahl where he belongs in the ranks of Pseudohistorians etc.

1. Here  and Here.

2. Fritze, Ronald H, Invented Knowledge, Reaktion Books, London, 2009, p. 207. Quoted by me Here.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. Why are academics so snarky? Whether Heyerdahl's hypothesis was correct or incorrect, the self-superior attitude of the reviewer makes clear his opinion -which makes the "evidence" he cites against Heyerdahl's conclusions seem less credible whether or not the reviewer's beliefs happen to be the truth.

  2. So sorry that Academics are human. As for "self-superior attitude", well I guess you haven`t read Thor Heyerdahl`s books many of which including the two reviewed here drip in contempt for so-called conventional Academics.

    Oh and please the tone trolling is dull beyond belief. So the evidence is less credible because of the tone. Translated "I get to dismiss it without a second thought which makes it so much easier for me". The suthors prsents their evidence and arguement quite throughly. If the reviewers sound exasperated it is because far too many people have taken Thor Heyerdahl seriously. Pseudo`s deserve the snark.

    Once again we have the double standard that Pseudo`s can get away with all sorts of crap but god forbid that Academics show even a hint of sarcasm.

    The fact is Thor Heyerdahl was a pseudoscientist; that he was way wrong in so much of what he sepeculated about. In the particular case the authors are quite correct that Thor Heyerdahl makes all sorts of elementary errors and his position is dubious in the extreme. I`ve cheeked the authors are indeed correct that Thor Heyerdahl was indeed stunningly ignorant of the scholarship concerning Snorri Sturlusson to cite just one example among many.

    With pseudo-crap a snarky tone is frequently advisable; and in this particular piece I found the snark rather minimal, although exasperation was clear enough.

    Tone trolling is frequently nothing more than a device to get away from dealing with the content of a piece. Since you can`t argue with the content whine about the tone.