Wood Wroth's Reviews > Dictionary of Northern Mythology

Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek
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Aug 25, 2011

it was ok
I own a copy

Now in print for nearly 30 years, Rudolf Simek's well-known handbook is often celebrated for its breadth of coverage, yet after all these years and editions it contains as much useful information as it does flaws.

The most immediately obvious issue is the lack of an index or table of contents of any kind. This situation is made more problematic by referrals to entries that do not exist or appear to have been absorbed into other entries (for example "stag cult"). The only organization that occurs in this work is bare-boned alphabetical order. In other words, prepare to sail solo in a sea of small entries about votive inscriptions, my friend.

Much more of a problem is Simek's presentation of theory as fact combined with hyper-criticism of Snorri. Simek's approach to Snorri seems to owe something to the infamous ideological sphere of Eugen Mogk and Sophus Bugge. In other words, Simek generally seems to be of the school of thought that if Snorri is the only one to attest to something, then clearly Snorri must have simply made it up or was just confused. Sure, while Snorri's systemized, manual-writing approach may sometimes veer off into synthesis and blatant Euhemerism, Simek's criticisms often deal in plain conjecture, throwing the principle of "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" to the wind. Sometimes these criticisms are even flatly wrong. For example, in an entry for "Vanaheimr", Simek states that, in the Prose Edda book "Gylfaginning", Snorri "unquestionably invented the name as a counterpart to Asgard". However, Snorri's claim is in fact echoed in a stanza of the Poetic Edda poem "Vafþrúðnismál":

In Vanaheim wise powers him created,
and to the gods a hostage gave.
At the world's dissolution,
he will return to the wise Vanir. (Thorpe trans.)

A straightforward mistake. However, it should not be ignored that Snorri had access to material now long lost to us ("Heimdalargaldr", as an example, comes to mind), and, that said, perhaps a quote from the Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil is appropriate here: "On this point as on so many others, Snorri knew what he was saying better than we do" (1973, "Remarks on Heimdall").

This is hardly an isolated problem. Some entries contradict one another; compare the entry for the goddess Hlín to the entry for the goddess Sága. Were they written by different people? Other problematic entry examples include an entry on the goddess Sif that somehow manages to argue against the "earth goddess" notion without mentioning the matter of Sif's "earth" heiti, the—to be frank—outright bizarreness of the *tiwaz-related entries, and an off-handed dismissal of the Indo-European Fjorgynn-Thor question. In this handbook opinions and preferred theories are pushed throughout, the word "recently" appears in entries apparently dating back to the 1970s, and the provided etymologies, as they are translated from German to English, need to be double-checked before use.

At the end of the day, when one needs reach for this handbook, checking the source material for confirmation is a necessary additional step. Consider also supplementing it with Andy Orchard's and John Lindow's handbooks which, while smaller and less wide in coverage, generally do not suffer from the same issues.
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