Olaus Magnus: A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, vol. I.

Olaus Magnus: A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, vol. I. – book reviews

Jacqueline Simpson

Olaus Magnus: A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, Vol. I. Translated by Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens, and edited by P.G. Foote. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1996. xciii + 288pp. Illus. 35 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0 904180 43 3

The encyclopaedic work of Olaus Magnus has been mined by generations of writers and scholars, from Elizabethan times to the present, for its fascinating store of information about Scandinavia. Folklorists have examined his comments on sorcery, werewolves, elves, ancient gods, and suchlike; ethnographers and social historians have been equally interested in his descriptions of material life in the North. Yet the complete text has never before appeared in English; previous users relied on a 1658 translation of a 1558 abridgement which, like the original text, was in Latin. Indeed, even Swedes had to wait until the 1920s for a full rendering in their own tongue.

Like many others, I had previously only come upon brief portions of Olaus Magnus, taken out of context to illustrate beliefs about, say, weather magic, sea serpents or Lapland shamans. To read the book in extenso produces a change of perspective; suddenly, one sees Olaus as the highly cultured Renaissance scholar and Catholic Archbishop that he was, gathering and sifting information about the antiquities, natural curiosities, customs and former beliefs of his region, checking it against his own observations, and reinforcing it by searching Classical writers, the Bible, and the Fathers of the Church for comparable material. Thus, the sacred tree by the temple at Uppsala is compared with Pliny’s account of the myrtles at the shrine of Quirinus, elves with fauns, Northern divinations with St John Chrysostom’s homily against auguries, and so forth. Of course some phenomena, such as skiing, were quite unparalleled, and one senses desperation as Olaus struggles, through words and pictures, to convince Italian intellectuals that such fantastic mirabilia are real.

The present translation is vivid and very pleasant to read, and carries annotations based on the commentary of Professor John Granlund, together with a long introduction setting out the biographical and historical background to Olaus’s work. The impetus behind it was both nationalistic and related to the politics of the Reformation age; not only was he proud of the glorious “Gothic” past of his nation, but he believed the modern “Goths” of Sweden could, if given due encouragement from Rome, rescue both their own land and others from Lutheranism, which he saw as a calamity. To persuade Catholic authorities of the viability of this notion, he presented Scandinavia in general, and Sweden in particular, as a strange region, but one full of resources and a breeding-ground for heroes.

Several sections in this first volume are of obvious interest to folklorists–Book III “On the superstitious worship of demons by peoples of the North”; Book IV “On the wars and customs of the pagan dwellers in the wild” (i.e. Finns and Lapps); and Book V “On giants” (including some ancient heroes from Saxo, such as Starkathr). Besides these, the sections on natural history and topography are often relevant, for instance when Olaus describes the portents to be drawn from thunder in various months, or comments on runestones and similar antiquities. The translators and editor are to be thanked and congratulated on their labours in making this entertaining and instructive book readily available.

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